The Most Important Vote for Higher Ed

06/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the carnival of horrors that is California's budget situation, perhaps the most gruesome exhibit is the University of California system. The 10 campuses in what we students call "the UC" have been devastated by budget cuts and are in danger of losing their title as the greatest public university system in the world.

And yet the most important votes Californians and UC students can make for the future of public higher education in our state are on ballot initiatives they know nothing about.

The UC wasn't always struggling. For decades, both Democrats and Republicans treated California's system of public research universities as the crown jewel of the state, providing funding in good economies and bad. Both parties made a commitment to public higher education that was unmatched anywhere else in the nation, and the results were incredible. For almost fifty years, any bright Californian student who was willing to work hard could get a world-class education at a very affordable price. The UC was the state's great equalizer.

And the benefits are still being shared statewide. Take a single industry: One in every four biotech firms in the state of California was started by UC faculty or graduates, and a full 85% of California's biotech companies employ scientists and engineers with advanced degrees from the UC in key R&D positions. The UC is the economic engine of our state.

But today the UC is haggard. Beaten. Bruised. Because of budget cuts, faculty pay is being slashed and staff are being fired or furloughed. Libraries are open for a few hours on the weekends or not at all; reference services are often "by appointment." In one department at UC Berkeley, janitorial services have been cut so far back that students are signing up in shifts to clean their own classrooms, using cleaning supplies bought by administrators. Required lectures and labs have been cut, meaning students fight their classmates in order to enroll; those who lose out take their classes the following year, pushing graduation back a year or even two.

And despite all of this, undergraduate fees have doubled in the last decade, and a 32 percent increase is hurtling down the pipe. All the anger that was on display late last year, when students occupied UC buildings across the state, is borne out of the fact that we are being asked to pay more for less.

But students are mobilizing, and at the University of California today that means more than demonstrations, marches, and occupations. Those expressions of activism are necessary, but not sufficient. Nowadays, students are lobbying lawmakers at the state and federal levels, they're leading letter-writing campaigns, and they're organizing sophisticated, savvy campaigns around government reform ballot initiatives.

It is this last that is perhaps most necessary. Funding for the UC has dropped consistently over the last 25 years, during the rule of both Democratic and Republican governors, and with a variety of administrators at the helm of the UC. Students in California are finally awakening to the fact that it is not the political leadership of the state or the administrative leadership of the UC that should be the subject of their ire. California's state governance is so fundamentally (and uniquely) screwy that we're all set up to fail. Here's the problem.

  1. Proposition 13, passed in 1978, essentially eliminates all property taxes.
  2. The initiative system creates unfunded mandates and allows citizens with no policy expertise to do the state's budgeting.
  3. Our districts are gerrymandered so badly that we elect a polarized legislature.
  4. With some of the shortest term limits in the nation, we boot politicians out of that polarized legislature before they can form coalitions across the aisle.

  5. So you take a legislature that is short on cash and so divided it can't agree on what to have for lunch. And then you add this kicker:

  6. A 2/3rds supermajority must approve every budget and every new tax. Look at the trouble a 60 percent requirement in one house of Congress has given President Obama and the Democrats in Washington. In California, you need 66 percent in both houses simply to pass a budget.

Fourteen of 40 state senators can grind California to a halt. And they do: every budget gets passed four or five months late. Worse, the UC gets hammered, because conservatives have de facto control over spending. In the last budget cycle, the Democrats wanted to take $1.2 billion from the prison budget and put it toward public higher education and social services. But in order to convince enough Republicans to sign on to their budget (Dems were just two votes short of the 2/3rds threshold in the Senate and four short in the Assembly), Democrats had to put that $1.2 billion back to prisons.

The time has come for reform. In November, there should be at least one initiative on the ballot that would replace the 2/3rds requirement for passing a budget with a simple majority. Students are behind this much-needed move. A student group called the Coalition for a Strong UC (which, full disclosure, I co-lead) is running a campaign with one message for the more than 200,000 student-voters at the 10 UC campuses: "Restore the Majority, Restore the UC."

California students are getting savvy. They are ready to take the future of the UC into their own hands. It's time to end the gridlock in Sacramento and restore public higher education in California to greatness. This November, we can do both at the same time.