There Is No Mystery in UC Drama

English Professor Christopher Newfield Takes Sacramento to Task on Undermining the Higher Education System

As he walks through the University Center at UC Santa Barbara, Christopher Newfield is the quintessential university English prof. Clad in velvet jacket and blue jeans, his wavy brown hair flows well past the collar. It helps that he’s got roguish good looks and an infectious smile.

But go to Newfield’s much-followed higher education blog, Remaking the University, or read his latest essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the tweediness is gone. The University of California is in deep trouble and it is not hard to figure out who the villain is.

CoastlinesDuring the day, Newfield teaches one of the most popular classes in the UC Santa Barbara English Department, Detective Fiction. But like all popular classes at UC Santa Barbara, the guy who teaches it is no academic slouch. His latest book was published by Harvard University Press and his latest grant is from the National Science Foundation.

It is at night that Newfield unleashes his fury at what is happening to the greatest public university in the world. “UC was the engine of upward mobility and general development in California,” he explained recently in his tiny office in South Hall. But in recent years California politicians, enabled by the leadership of the University of California, have determined that higher education is now a “private good” that must be totally paid for by those who receive it.

"Even as his classes are filling with first-generation university students and junior college transfers who are older and poorer, UC will raise fees this year for the 18th time in the last 20 years. As he recently wrote in his blog, which appears on the Huffington Post, “Unfortunately for the majority of voters who want to maintain public investment in health and education, austerity has become the foolish wisdom of both parties. The Democratic governor of California, Jerry Brown, is cutting at least as deeply as his Republican counterparts in other big states, and with the same absence of developmental vision. Enormous cuts are directed at that cornerstone of upward mobility for working- and middle-class people, our public colleges and universities. Texas is cutting 5 percent, Georgia 7 percent, New York 10 percent, Washington 26-30 percent over two years, and California is cutting 16 percent this year after a 20 percent cut in 2008-09.”

Newfield argues that the two solutions to this problem, raising private money by increasing philanthropy to UC or raising tuition dramatically in coming years, are false solutions. UC will never be able to raise private money at the rate the state is cutting and student tuition hikes will turn UC into an exclusive private university, no matter how much financial aid is provided.

CoastlinesThe answer is for the UC Regents and President Mark Yudof to confront the state Legislature and Governor Brown, Newfield argued. The public supports higher education, according to state polls, and it is clear public education generates a huge return for the California economy. The problem, he concluded, is that UC leadership has lost its stomach for a fight with entrenched politicians, and has not given its alumni or its constituent groups the ammunition they need to fight Sacramento. That fight would include changing California’s tax structure so that higher education is not vulnerable to shifts in income tax receipts, which now fund most of California’s General Fund budget.

So what should UC’s supporters do to protect the value of a UC education and ensure that UC continues to be both accessible for the middle and working classes as well as an economic engine? Newfield called on supporters to embark on a more ambitious public effort.

First they need to rebuild the confidence of the University Office of the President in a public, not private university, putting its focus on the public good that comes from a public university, rather than on privatization of the system. Make sure they remind everybody in California that the state is getting a high-quality product, educated citizens as well as new industries, for a very little cost, Newfield argued.

More important, alumni and the public need to understand what is being done with their dwindling investment in California’s higher education. Past all the news stories about high administrative salaries is the deeper truth that hundreds of new enterprises are springing from UC laboratories even as a new generation of leaders and workers is being educated for a very low cost.

The need and opportunities for higher education have never been greater, Newfield argues. The costs of failing to provide higher education access to all Californians has also never been greater.

As Newfield recent wrote in Academe, a publication of the American Association of University Professors, “History is replete with nations that declined not so much because of a military invasion or an environmental collapse, though these were familiar symptoms, but because they came to undermine their own best institutions. The United States is on the verge of undermining a higher education system that has been a model for the world. It’s not too late to turn back, but the way forward lies through understanding and addressing the dire need for public funding for the university’s three major public missions: egalitarian access, advanced research, and transformative learning.”

To read more of Christopher Newfield thoughts, go to his blog site “Remaking the University” or read his latest book, “Unmaking the Public University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class” by Harvard University Press.

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