06/29/2010 03:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Recognizing the Debts We Owe to Universities -- And I'm Not Talking About Student Loans

Undoubtedly you, and all of us, owe a great debt to UCLA and the University of California system.

Even though most of us did not attend UCLA, we have almost certainly benefited in significant, even life-altering ways from the university. The source of these many benefits is often invisible to us, and the mechanics of how they came along are perhaps long forgotten.

It's like water. When asked, most people aren't focused on the massively complex water transportation, treatment and distribution system in place to bring water to our tap and make our lives possible.

It's much the same with the many developments originating at UCLA.

Universities go beyond building educated communities or developing future leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators. Our universities, and particularly our public universities, touch our lives daily in powerful ways that impact us enormously.

Recognizing the debt they owe in small or significant ways, thousands of people from around the country have begun trying to reach legislators by visiting is part of a public outreach campaign to mobilize Californians and beneficiaries of UCLA nationwide to speak up about the importance of UCLA, the UC system and higher education, and what's at stake, given a staggering $20+ billion California budget deficit.

The public benefits of the UC system are endless. Take your pick:

UC innovations like earthquake-proof bridges and buildings, better traffic engineering systems and fuel-efficient vehicles have made traveling safer, more efficient and environmentally sound.

Clinical and scientific research performed at UC has led to the development of lifesaving treatments and medicines.

The UC medical enterprise is the fourth-largest health care delivery system in California, while 60 percent of the state's M.D.s are trained at UC's health sciences and service programs.

Impacting the economy in a massive way, $14 billion of economic activity in California comes from UC contributions annually, while 400,000 California jobs are within the UC system and 500 startup companies have been formed with UC inventions and innovations in the past 30 years.

The last UCLA Economic Impact Report found that for every $1 of state funds invested in just UCLA, the largest UC school, the campus generates almost $15 in economic activity, creating a $9.2 billion impact on the greater Los Angeles region and a $9.7 billion boost for all of California, a boost that translates into jobs and services provided to our many communities.

This is why, as our leaders prepare for the next round of debilitating budget cuts, we must appreciate just how much we all owe to UCLA, the UC system and all of our public universities and colleges.

In his May plan, Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed restoring some higher education funding. However, legislators still have yet to approve a finalized budget plan, and there are numerous objections.

The financial state of California is dire. State dollars are crucial for maintaining higher education -- the backbone of the California economy and community. But the trend isn't good.

California gives less than half as much money per student to UCLA as it did just 20 years ago. Cuts in state support for higher education over the last three years left the UC system with a $1 billion budget gap for 2009-10. Despite drastic, self-imposed budget cuts by UC, approved student fee increases and the governor's proposal to restore some funds, UC will still face a budget gap of almost $250 million in 2010-11.

New student enrollment declined in 2009 and 2010, despite record high numbers of high school student graduates, because the lack of available state funds forced UC to curtail enrollments by almost 4,000. Those students who did enroll have to deal with increasingly large class sizes and reduced programs and student services.

Meanwhile, compensation for university educators is below market -- significant in many areas -- putting the university at a decided disadvantage to recruit and retain its world class faculty. This also makes our faculty vulnerable to poaching from other universities and institutions here and abroad who can afford to pay, which means losing talent and innovation to others, not to mention losing dollars and competitive grants for top research.

With such high stakes, we first must understand the consequences. Then we need to fulfill our obligations to the universities that have given us so much.

Budget cuts to higher education mean cuts to everyone in California who benefits from innovations that make our quality of life better, that enlighten and that actually save lives.

So, what can you do? What can we do?

We can tell California legislators that we want action now -- to save jobs, lives and the future of this state. We can send a message straight to Sacramento, saying that higher education is the basis on which our community flourishes -- a stimulus that is exactly what we need during tough economic times -- and that we want to see California take its rightful place as a thriving, productive leader. And we can tell them exactly how higher education has made a difference in our community and our personal lives.

I encourage everyone to visit and sign up at Share this message, and let legislators and the governor know that you won't stand for any further cuts to higher education or our future.