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California: Killing the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs

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Like the GI Bill that gave access to a college degree for the first time to a generation of Americans, the creation of the California State University system fifty years ago did the same for Californians. In the decades that followed there was an explosion of innovation in all fields and an era of unprecedented economic growth. These mid-20th Century public investments tapped into the talent of millions of people who would otherwise be denied access to a quality education. The highly skilled labor force these investments created helped make California the most vibrant state economy in the nation.

In a "white paper" titled, "'Restructuring' the CSU or Wrecking It?: What Proposed Changes Mean and What We Can Do about Them," the California Faculty Association (CFA), the largest faculty union in the state (to which I belong), has identified the perilous path our "leaders" both in Sacramento and among CSU administrators are leading us down. "On every one of our campuses, we are seeing signs that a profound change in the mission of our California State University is being implemented from the top under cover of the economic crisis," said CFA President Lillian Taiz, a professor of History at CSU Los Angeles. The state that brought the world microprocessors, cell phones, computers, and the Internet is in the process of gutting its system of public higher education in the name of "restructuring." In effect, they're killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Governor Arnold Scwharzenegger and the Republicans in the Legislature who control California's finances have apparently concluded that it is not even worth trying to compete with India and China anymore. California's "leaders," by abandoning the CSU, are throwing in the towel. They've given up. One would think that even Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth and Senator Dave Cogdill would care about maintaining America's competitive edge against its commercial rivals. Yet they are pursuing an irresponsible and cynical "restructuring" of the CSU that is terrible for California's future and bad for the United States' position in the world economy.

State officials and CSU administrators have sent faculty contradictory signals. On the one hand, they tell us that we should willingly accept increased workloads, over-crowded classrooms, "furloughs," downsizing and lay-offs; while, on the other hand, they tell us we should retain all the idealism and dedication that led us to become professional educators in the first place. Wave after wave of devastating budget cuts to the CSU have undermined academic excellence and have had a demoralizing effect on the people who have sought careers in higher education in California. "Faced with a seemingly endless onslaught of bad news about changes on our campuses that just 'can't be helped,'" the CFA paper sadly notes, educators are experiencing a growing "sense of futility and paralysis."

"The current economic crisis provides cover for the destruction of public higher education in California," the CFA "white paper" bluntly states. And it calls for organized resistance against any permanent "restructuring" of the CSU in the current context of widespread economic insecurity. The CFA document also points out: "The provision of a broad liberal education for communities that might have no other access is at the heart of the CSU's mission and at the heart of what is under attack." CSUs located in rural communities and those serving underrepresented students are currently being targeted to take the hardest hits.

". . . The "restructuring" process is already under way on a number of CSU campuses including Bakersfield, Dominguez Hills, Humboldt, Pomona, San Diego and Stanislaus. The process is different from campus to campus and has begun under a number of different labels including "program planning," "restructuring" and "prioritization." Whatever the process is being called . . . there is a profound shift in public policy taking place concerning the CSU's mission."

CSU Chancellor Charles Reed and the Board of Trustees show zero leadership amidst the severest fiscal crisis the CSU has ever faced. They, along with visionless state politicians, are presiding over the systematic dismantling of public higher education in California. In the midst of the current economic crisis brought about by the failure of unregulated financial markets and twisted profit maximization schemes, California's "leaders" have concluded that investing in higher education is no longer affordable. "There's no money!" Chancellor Reed proclaims.

Yet the CFA's position paper connects the "trillions of tax-payer dollars" that have been "spent in just the past year on bailing out banks," with the bogus claim that there is no money available for higher education. It also notes that the draconian cuts to higher education in California contradict President Barack Obama's stated commitment to a more enlightened educational policy.

Not only are we able to find the money to bail out banks and fight foreign wars but there are potential revenues right here in California that could be tapped to save public higher education. Perhaps Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Jay Leno and other wealthy people who choose to live in the Golden State could be asked to chip in a little more? Or maybe the Taco Bells and the KFCs and the Burger Kings and the McDonalds and the Home Depots and the Wal-Marts and all the other giant corporations that make a killing each year off California consumers could be asked to pay a little extra? Or perhaps we could pass Assembly Bill 656 to create a severance tax on oil extraction just as George W. Bush's Texas and Sarah Palin's Alaska do? Or maybe we could modify Proposition 13 to remove huge commercial real estate holdings from the tax exemption while retaining it for residential homeowners?

And where do Chancellor Reed and the Board of Trustees stand on these and other revenue-raising proposals that might save the college system they are charged to protect? They refuse to take a stand. And because they won't take a stand it's perfectly reasonable for Californians to demand an explanation.

The public must be made to appreciate what's at stake here: A precious public resource that took decades to build is in the process of being "restructured" out of existence. Once it's gone it will be very difficult (if not impossible) to build up again. And it will undermine the quality of life in California for decades to come. The CSU system produces 60 percent of all bachelors degrees in California. The Governor, the Legislature, and the CSU administrators have formed a wrecking crew. They seem willing to allow California's workforce to become low wage and less educated, even though a low-wage society can never be an affluent society. The recent protests by University of California students and faculty show that those who support public higher education in California won't go down without a fight. The CSU will only survive if students and their families heed the alarm bells CFA is ringing and stand up together and say: "Enough!"