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So Much Is at Stake: The Future of UCLA

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Recently, the University of California Board of Regents approved a systemwide increase of 32 percent in undergraduate student fees. The magnitude of their action is unprecedented. Students across the 10 campuses were outraged. They see the steep hike as an affront to the basic purpose of the UC -- to provide broad access to excellence.

On that point, they are right. California's Master Plan for Higher Education, adopted in 1960, guaranteed that all the state's academically qualified students could attend college, regardless of ability to pay. Yet now, although one-third of the revenue generated by the higher fee will provide financial aid for the neediest students, many who have set their sights on UCLA will struggle even more to afford it in a rock-bottom economy.

But the Regents have little choice as they try to restore the fiscal health of the world's greatest university system. We have already instituted faculty and staff salary reductions, curtailed travel expenditures, deferred building maintenance and laid off hundreds of employees.

The problem is that over the past 30 years, state support has continually fallen. Funding to UCLA has decreased from 37 percent to 9 percent of our operating budget. This year, the state cut by $131 million the funding that supports facilities and maintenance, police services, and staff and faculty salaries. Add unfunded costs of utilities, health insurance premiums and retirement plan contributions, and the shortfall exceeds $150 million. Closing the gap requires long-term or permanent reductions in programs -- reductions that erode UCLA's excellence and, in the words of UC President Mark Yudof, "cut into the bone" of the institution.

So much is at stake. Every year, UCLA provides world-class education to more than 30,000 students. Our graduates become top-tier teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers and much more. We provide health care to 300,000 patients annually. Our Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center is ranked third in the nation and best in the West by U.S. News & World Report. And the Regents have agreed for the university to enable Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in south Los Angeles to reopen, restoring desperately needed services. We make this major commitment of resources and expertise, even as the state drains our support. California's expectations of the university don't diminish, regardless of our fiscal condition, but something has to give.

UCLA is the Los Angeles area's seventh largest employer and adds $9.3 billion a year to the regional economy. In the past five years, UCLA inventions have increased by 73 percent, and we have spun off 58 startup companies. Our faculty and students engage in addressing every major issue confronting Los Angeles, from homelessness and juvenile justice to sustainability. We partner with nearly 200 community organizations to improve quality of life around us.

Our arts and cultural offerings draw 500,000 people a year. The UCLA Film and Television Archive's collection is the nation's second largest, behind only the Library of Congress.

Obviously, UCLA's contributions to the lives of Angelenos reach far beyond our students and their families. This fall, in an effort to improve local K-12 education, we opened the UCLA Community School in central Los Angeles, in partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District and community organizations. UCLA faculty and students participated in every aspect of its development and serve as mentors, instructors and tutors. We hope it will become a model for others.

In September, our first UCLA Volunteer Day took 4,300 students to eight Los Angeles sites to tackle restoration projects. Our new online Volunteer Center connects the campus with service opportunities citywide.

But this great institution, once the envy of the world and still beloved by so many, is slowly starving. UCLA, as it was envisioned and as it has always fulfilled that vision, is critically endangered. The need for the unparalleled fee increase makes that abundantly clear.

Yet the Southern California community seems not to see that if UCLA sinks into mediocrity, so do the quality of life and economic vitality of Los Angeles. If the university loses its margin of excellence, there will be no way back.

We can't keep making bricks without straw. The funding model on which we've always relied is broken. While California lawmakers try to restore the state's fiscal health, other elite universities circle, ready to poach our talent and already nibbling at our star faculty. Class offerings are being reduced, faculty workloads increased.

Excellence is a shared asset in which the community, region and state are vested. Californians must quickly raise their voices to remind our lawmakers how critical UCLA is to the state. Learn how you can advocate for UCLA at http://www.advocacy.ucla.edu/getinvolved.html. This is a call to action, a cry for help. Remember that you often don't realize what you've got until it's gone.

Gene D. Block is chancellor of UCLA.