Shawn Hubler

Are we failing to invest in genius as a public asset?

Randy Schekman, a UC Berkeley professor, wonders if the next generation will be able to afford the University of California education that helped make him a Nobel laureate.
Randy Schekman, a UC Berkeley professor, wonders if the next generation will be able to afford the University of California education that helped make him a Nobel laureate. Bay Area News Group file

In 1966, when Randy Schekman graduated from high school, an undergraduate education at the University of California was essentially free.

Three hundred dollars covered a year’s worth of fees and tuition. What a gift – and how it mattered: The Schekmans of Anaheim were raising five kids on a middle-class engineer’s paycheck.

Never mind that their oldest son was a whiz who filled the family fridge with his science-fair projects. When he wanted a microscope, he’d had to wrest his lawn-mowing money away from his mother, who kept borrowing it for groceries.

“There were no funds for a private education,” Schekman remembers, “but you could pay for the whole year just by working summers if you went to UCLA.”

So that’s what he did, finding his way to some of California’s most famed and gifted teachers – Willard Libby, who won a Nobel prize for his research on radiocarbon dating, and Kenneth Trueblood, the pioneer of modern crystallography.

Eventually, he became a cell biologist and UC Berkeley professor. Last fall, Schekman won the Nobel for physiology or medicine for work that, among other things, helped revolutionize the production of life-saving insulin for millions suffering from diabetes.

Except for four years as a Stanford University doctoral student, the entirety of his career has been within the UC system; that is why for the last 12 months, he has taken every opportunity to credit the taxpayers of California.

And these days, the professor puzzles over a new problem: Where will the next generation of UC laureates come from, now that support for public education is dwindling?

Autumn is Nobel season, especially in California. Every year, the Golden State echoes with scholarly, Swedish-accented applause.

Nowhere is the cheering louder than within the UC system, which has produced more Nobel Prize winners than any public university in the nation – 61 since the 1930s, about half of them since 1990, at least one already this year, in physics, to professor Shuji Nakamura of UC Santa Barbara.

That many Nobels in that short a time would seem to speak well of the state of public universities in California. But Nobels are for discoveries that often emerge from the work of a lifetime, and today’s prizes are the fruit of intellectual and financial investments made decades ago.

Most recent UC laureates are scholars who came long ago and made their careers here.

Why did they come? Lots of reasons, but generally because California, unlike the East, treated genius as a public asset.

Here, great minds weren’t available just to those who could afford private university tuition. Here, brilliance was a resource to be invested in, built upon and made accessible to young Californians like Schekman.

Even as recently as, say, 15 years ago, that was still the attitude. But no longer. Now, like so many other valuable resources that were once essentially free – roads, beaches – universities are, bit by bit, being surrendered to privatization.

Today, a California kid can expect to shell out more than $33,000 for a year at Schekman’s alma mater. Even a school with UC Berkeley’s reputation can expect to be increasingly outbid for important researchers and teachers.

Since 2000, the state has slashed per-student spending at the UCs from $15,740 per student to $8,260. The teenager who could count on the state then to cover 72 percent of the cost of his or her education now can expect the state’s share to be only 42 percent – less than the student’s.

Not that UC spending shouldn’t be watched – talk about bloated administration – but at prices like that, it’s hard to claim that California’s public universities are even still public.

In fact, to make up for the loss in state spending, the UCs have had to dramatically ramp up admissions of lucrative out-of-state students. At UCLA and Berkeley, about 30 percent of enrollment this year is from outside California; at UC San Diego, it’s 28 percent; at UC Davis, 19 percent are out-of-staters.

And while state lawmakers don’t like it, they seem unable or unwilling to do much about it. When UC President Janet Napolitano came to the Capitol early this year with Schekman in tow, lobbying for money, “the Legislature seemed very supportive, but in the end they were unwilling to increase the budget,” Schekman said.

And Gov. Jerry Brown, he added, “was called away on another urgent matter.”

Well, it’s never fun to say no.

But no doesn’t cut it. The UC system is not only the great legacy of the governor’s father but also the main source of class mobility in this state.

Saving it is shaping up to be the next great challenge on the horizon, and there must be a better plan than this drift toward privatization. The UC has made California’s economy and workforce the world’s envy, and it’s a disgrace that the legions who have benefited, from Silicon Valley billionaires to alumni to corporations to politicians, haven’t managed to step up and find a solution.

Public genius is California’s lifetime achievement. The UCs need to be there for the next generation of Randy Schekmans.

If they aren’t, it will be a loss. And it will matter. And we all will know it, even those of us who aren’t Nobel laureates.

Follow Shawn Hubler on Twitter @ShawnHubler.