Joe Mathews, California editor for Zocalo Public Square, is responding to Dan Morain's Aug. 1 column "Lockyer has a problem in bid to lead CSU." Morain wrote that state Treasurer Bill Lockyer "would bring political savvy and knowledge to the job, but no academic training, and that would be a problem."
Dan Morain raises some fair points about the weaknesses of Bill Lockyer as a candidate for chancellor of the California State University system. But he misses the real story, which is that CSU's weaknesses make Lockyer, flaws and all, the best conceivable candidate for the job.
In a normal situation, Lockyer isn't university president material. He's not an academic. He's not even an academic administrator. And he's 71 years old.
But CSU isn't in a normal place. The system has plenty of academic power and, for better or worse, no shortage of administrators. Its core challenges involve a political and fiscal environment that is forcing it to retrench when it should be expanding.
Indeed, it's hard to imagine a worse job than CSU chancellor right now. The broken state budget system makes it easier to cut higher education than almost anything else so CSU faces a never-ending series of cuts, and is forced to respond with compensating tuition hikes.
State legislators and the governor are trying to score political points by criticizing salaries and micromanaging hiring and spending. Students and faculty are justifiably angry but are lashing out at administrators and trustees, instead of cooperating to fight their real enemies: the budget system and the interest groups that protect it.
For all these reasons, the chancellor, at this moment, should be a hardened politician, not some microbiologist or Renaissance scholar. Lockyer's résumé is the best fit for the tasks. Of course, his experience won't make much difference if he doesn't have a plan. And that should be a war plan.
He should take the fight to the budget system and make lawmakers who go along with cuts to higher ed pay a real political price for doing so. And he should insist on new constitutional protections for higher education funding, even at the risk of making a dysfunctional budget system more dysfunctional.
An initiative to protect higher- ed funding would be a win-win for California, because it would provide more short-term protection from cuts while hastening the collapse of the entire budget system a collapse that's necessary if Californians are ever going to build a saner budget process and a simpler constitution.
The biggest red flag about Lockyer's candidacy? His interest in the job. Has he lost his mind? Maybe. But CSU doesn't have any better options, and no one in his right mind would want to be chancellor right now. If he's crazy enough to want the gig, we should be crazy enough to give it to him.