Apathy, a constant threat
Monday, May 16, 2011
Category: Opinion > Columns
All bets are off," that's one phrase that should scare the heck out of all University of California students and aspiring UC students. Especially when it comes from the one, the only, UC President Mark Yudof.
Testifying in front of the state Senate's budget committee, Yudof uttered those foreboding words as the university absorbs a $500 million dollar cut which could balloon to $1 billion before the year is up. Yes, that was $1 billion with a B if Gov. Jerry Brown can't get his tax extensions through the recalcitrant state legislature.
"It took over a hundred years to build these great institutions, but they can be destroyed," a maudlin Yudof concluded.
It seems like more and more students take a good hard look at those numbers and feel numb. Let me share a quick anecdote. It's March 29, 2011, and the night before, Gov. Brown had announced that he had given up on getting the tax extensions on the June ballot, which means the $1 billion dollar cut came into sharp relief against the amorphous blob of budgetary threats. That morning I stormed onto campus expecting crowds of protesters, heated conversations with disappointed friends and brief lectures on state budgets by concerned Professors before class.
But what I found was a placid campus.
Walking through campus the last few weeks, you would think that Berkeley wasn't teetering on the edge of a proverbial budgetary cliff, waiting to hear its fate passed down from the state legislature.
It appears as if a pervading sense of apathy has infected the campus, leaving us nonplussed by the never ceasing parade of bad news coming out of Sacramento and the President's Office in Oakland, which is crazy to me. One day we're ready to tear down California Hall, polished marble brick by polished marble brick, the next we're content lounging on Memorial Glade without a care in the world. Maybe we are suffering from protest fatigue. Or maybe the seemingly unrelenting budget bludgeoning we've received over the past few years has inoculated us against apocalyptic news. Or maybe it's just been the threat of finals. But for some reason, we've collectively gone quiet.
Regardless, this is real. Other, more well-endowed schools are recruiting away our professors. Our differed maintenance costs are backlogged in the hundreds of millions. Class sizes are grossly too big. Entire departments are being cut.
But if anything will snap us out of our budget cut malaise, it's this: Yudof has confirmed that if these cuts become reality, there is a good chance university tuition could jump to $20,000 a year. Think that's just hyperbole? Gov. Brown has estimated an even higher premium of $25,000 per year since April.
Yet, we should all notice that most of the dialogue around the future of the university revolves around "ifs," and "coulds." Nothing is definitive yet. A school can bounce back from a 2 percent budget dip. Students can handle cramped class rooms for a few more semesters. Professors can sit on their salaries for a year longer.
But we should get active.
We should follow the lead of California's K-12 teachers and head to Sacramento, or even Washington for that matter, and commence letter writing campaigns, teach-ins, fundraising, etc. Maybe even an ASUC-elected Anti-Divestment Coordinator?
There is no doubt that higher education is expensive and that in this day and age, the state cannot, and should not, pay a hundred cents on the dollar for talented students to go to college. That was a model for a bygone era. Yet if California still believes in the tenets of public education (accessibility, excellence, etc.), then we need to fight for it.
Or maybe I have it totally wrong. Maybe we just don't know what to say. Yes, accessibility is good. Yes, it's nice to boast the best public institution in the world. But so what? California is facing 12 percent unemployment. Money is tight and the university will just have to tighten its belt like everybody else.
Well that's just short sighted.
Last year, the California State University system released a report which revealed California's public school system's "secret weapon." The report showed that the CSU system as a whole creates $17 billion dollars for California, reduces unemployment for graduates and generates the higher taxes that they pay on the better jobs they are qualified for as a result of their education. In fact, for every $1 invested in the CSU's, the system returns $5.43 in benefits to the state.
Call me a UC snob, but I'd assume our numbers are similar if not better. Companies like Apple and Google are flush with UC Berkeley alums.
Not only do we have an obvious witch's brew of potential calamities to fear, but we have a message and empirical evidence that higher education pays to back it up. So what's stopping us?
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