As he began his first governorship 40 years ago, Jerry Brown told an interviewer that one of his goals was educational reform.
“I’m going to starve the schools financially until I get some educational reforms,” Brown said.
“What kind of reforms?” the interviewer asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Brown replied.
Four decades later, Brown has launched what he hopes will be a successful reform of elementary and high school finances, aimed at improving the achievement of poor children. And now he’s pivoting to the state’s tripartite system of higher education.
Without saying so directly, he’s employing his almost total control of the budget to overhaul the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education, one of his father’s major achievements 55 years ago.
That plan envisioned seamless no- or low-cost access to employment-related training, two- and four-year degrees, plus advanced graduate programs that would supply California with the doctors, lawyers and other professionals its fast-growing economy needed.
It never quite achieved what it promised, thanks to the vagaries of the state budget process and the parochial – and competitive – interests of two separate university systems, plus community colleges that were managed by locally elected boards.
The plan’s academic demarcation lines have been breached in recent years by allowing the state university system to issue doctorates – hitherto a University of California monopoly – and community colleges to begin awarding bachelor’s degrees on a trial basis.
Meanwhile, tuition and other fees have skyrocketed as governors and legislators struggled to balance the state’s budget by cutting aid to the colleges.
Brown contends that it’s time for California’s higher education to modernize, becoming thriftier, more efficient through technology – online classes, for instance – and more integrated. He wants colleges to be judged and be financed by how quickly and efficiently they produce graduates.
His eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the supposedly independent University of California over state aid and tuition is a milestone. The amount of money involved is infinitesimal in relationship to a $113 billion state budget, but its outcome will tell us whether Brown can achieve functional control of the huge university system.
The creation of a two-member committee – Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano – to study university operations is a victory for the governor, implying that Napolitano and Brown’s fellow UC regents really don’t want a showdown.
This is important work. California can no longer afford disjointed, internally competitive and wasteful collegiate systems that are walled off from the real world.
Having belatedly embraced his father’s legacy, Brown may be honoring it by updating Pat Brown’s master college plan.