California Forum

The next governor needs to give the University of California what it truly deserves

Students fill the sidewalk at the University of California, Berkeley, the flagship campus of the UC system. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Students fill the sidewalk at the University of California, Berkeley, the flagship campus of the UC system. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File) AP

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series on educational issues for the upcoming elections.

Was Jerry Brown chased during childhood by a bruin or a golden bear? Did he have nightmares in which banana slugs slithered up the walls of his bedroom?

There are times when this feels like the only plausible back story for why the governor has built such antagonistic relationship with the University of California and its president, the equally stubborn Janet Napolitano.

The governor’s lack of admiration for the UC system famously dates to his suggestion during his first administration that UC professors should take lesser salaries because they derive “psychic income” from their jobs. That’s the sort of statement that could only be made by people who have never had to worry about the price of California real estate or whether they’d be able to afford to send their kids to a great college.

Aside from how pathetic it would be to see UC descend into mediocrity, apart from the blow to our pride, there’s a real dollar cost to Brown’s antagonistic relationship with UC.

It’s been hard to figure out the governor’s logic at times. He greatly increases funding for K-12 public schools – great job on that, by the way – and, even though these schools fall within the state’s responsibilities under the Constitution, he specifically pushes responsibility back to the local districts, which might or might not ultimately prove a wise idea. He gives those local jurisdictions near-total freedom to decide how to spend the extra cash. The state board of education appointed by Brown has devised an accountability program for schools that, sad to say, has practically no actual accountability in it.

But at the same time, Brown has yanked hard on the reins of the University of California and he attempts to micromanage it even though UC’s independence from state interference is written into the state Constitution. Though not much has been said about it recently, one of his early ideas was for UC to save money by offering some of its core courses in online format.

Online education has its strengths, but using it to save money on university-level academic courses is the kind of simplistic but unrealistic idea that politicians tend to embrace. What costs money in academia isn’t the brick and mortar, but the staff. Without interaction with professors, lecturers and teaching assistants, students aren’t getting the richness and responsiveness they need. When they don’t understand something, they need to be able to talk to someone. And computers do a lousy job of grading essays and projects; those are time-consuming tasks that require educated humans.

A 2015 study found that students in California community colleges were 11 percent less likely to pass the online version of a course than the same in-person class. And those were students who had opted for online, as opposed to students who would be required to be educated online even when they knew it wasn’t right for them.

That’s just one of the reasons why UC has been given so much self-governance. Politicians aren’t academics or educators. Their performance with K-12 education is practically a lesson unto itself on why UC should continue to be autonomous.

UC is one of the few public institutions in the state that’s managed to hang onto much of its original luster. Its schools continue to be highly regarded nationally and worldwide, and a nationwide report last year praised UC for accepting large numbers of low-income students who receive Pell grants. UC continues to provide no-cost tuition to most students whose families earn $80,000 or less. Another analysis last year, by The New York Times, listed colleges doing the most to ensure the American dream as engines of social mobility for low-income students. Among the top 10 institutions of higher education, UC campuses claimed six of the spots, and all of the top five.

Brown wanted more emphasis on teaching and less on research, and a push for higher graduation rates. With this plus the online courses, what he really was talking about is a stripped-down, mattress-on-the-floor, workmanlike university system.

Not one that students from throughout the world drool to attend for graduate school. Not one that sets California apart for more than its mild climate and insane housing prices. It wouldn’t be the place that the state’s own top students dream of attending.

Aside from how pathetic it would be to see UC descend into mediocrity, apart from the blow to our pride, there’s a real dollar cost to all this. Stop making UC a destination school and you stop attracting the kinds of people who created Silicon Valley and the biotech industry in San Diego.

You stop drawing the minds that are making big discoveries in personalized medicine, stem cell therapies and other medical care, and the engineering brains that are breaking ground in artificial intelligence and robotics, the social scientists who discover what does and doesn’t work in education. There’s a lot of talk about how important it is to put more Californians through college so they can take on the jobs of the future, but it’s even more important to make sure that the people who create those jobs are here, or what you have are a bunch of well-educated, underemployed young adults.

By all means, let’s stipulate that neither Napolitano nor her university is perfect. Top UC administrators are overpaid, which she has acknowledged and vowed to fix. Her office inexcusably interfered with a recent audit of UC and its bookkeeping methods were found to be shoddy.

But let’s also be clear that the audit, despite how it has been interpreted, never found a secret stash of $175 million tucked away in the UC president’s office. Aside from setting aside a reasonable reserve, her office was merely serving as the conduit for grant and other outside money that was heading to individual researchers and campuses. An additional sum paid for university-wide programs, such as study in Washington D.C.

What UC needs right now is some gubernatorial salve for its bruises, a new governor who believes in the importance of having not just a good public research university system, but a world-envies-us system. Unfortunately, though many of the candidates talk in terms of building better UC relations – and stronger budgets – they also engage in the same tired discussions about this being contingent on higher graduation rates and shorter times to graduation.

In other words, more politicians are trying to rope in the university with accountability systems that they don’t apply to our high schools. The state has a new school-accountability plan that says nothing about taking money from schools that don’t raise their graduation rates.

As it happens, UC’s graduation rates are higher than the national norms, and its time to graduation shorter. The average time to a bachelor’s is just a little over four years; those days when kids hung around for two or three extra years because they didn’t want to face the real world are over.

And if politicians want to tie funding to graduation rates, what they’ll almost surely get are a lot of fake numbers, students who are graduated because UC might feel compelled to lower its standards to get the money it needs. Never forget that graduation rates are among the easiest outcomes for schools to manipulate; we’re already seeing that in our public high schools. The question should be whether we’re really educating students to levels that will get them somewhere in life, not whether they’ve been handed a document with fanciful old-fashioned printing.

There are programs that help the students who most need it, the ones who are the first in their families to attend college, and several UCs have been at work on them. They include summer bridge programs, which do a great job of prepping students for the complications of university life and studies.

How do you build a relationship with a professor? How do you put together the right combination of courses, decide on a major, find a study group? And if a new governor would like to spring some money from the general fund – beyond the money it takes to provide a UC-level education – in the form of extra grants to start more of these programs, he or she would almost certainly find eager takers.

Governing is a little like parenting. Sometimes, the wisdom lies in knowing when to step back, shut up and act supportive.

Karin Klein is a veteran California journalist and commentator who has written extensively on education. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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