Alternative letter to Janet Napolitano

Dear President Napolitano:

My colleague Michael O’Hare’s letter to you proves one proposition beyond any doubt: Your first act as President of the University of California should be to ask UCSF to start a crash program to clone O’Hares. We need at least one of him per campus.

As to the recommendations he actually makes: Mike’s analysis is always penetrating and provocative. His conclusions are, in many cases, correct. This, however, is one of the other cases. Yes, the basic functions of the University need fixing. No, yours is not the office in charge of fixing them.

The President of the University of California has three functions: (1) to choose the Chancellors who run the ten essentially independent teaching institutions that constitute the UC system; (2) to bring in money from the state government; and (3) to keep the Regents, the legislature, and the governor off the backs of the folks who do the actual work. It’s a brilliant system: as long as Regents and the rest of the politicians are talking with the President, the productive parts of the enterprise are insulated from ignorant meddling.

Your recent predecessors have grossly failed with respect to task #2. Their failure has put at risk an astoundingly successful machine for turning out new knowledge and educated people. Your central task is to reverse that failure. I would propose do so through a ballot initiative to be voted on in November of 2016 that would require the state to spend as much on its universities (UC plus CSU) as it does on its prisons.

Mike is right that lots of things about the contemporary research university need to change to adapt to new conditions. According to Susanne Lohmann’s long-anticipated book, that statement has remained true for the approximately 1000 years that research universities have existed. They have always adapted, and always far too slowly to please their internal and external critics.

No doubt the Office of the President can help that adaptation along, both by providing some resources (especially in the integration of information and communications technology into the teaching process) by choosing Chancellors committed to a reform agenda, and (perhaps) by taking action to curtail the proliferation of Deputy Assistant Vice-Chancellors for Nothing in Particular. But the OP has neither the expertise, the capacity, nor the standing to impose the sort of centralized management that Mike’s reform agenda seems to demand. There’s simply nothing productive to be done from Oakland about the problem that empirical labor economists, given a choice of colleagues, hire other empirical labor economists. And even Mike’s agenda omits improving the treatment of non-ladder faculty, a truly monstrous challenge that has been getting worse under budget pressure.

But here’s the central fact: American higher education is a remarkably successful sector. Within that sector, the University of California is a standout performer. Of our ten campuses, four are ranked among the top twenty research universities worldwide, and another three in the top fifty. And we do that while also maintaining an important avenue of social mobility; UCLA alone has more Pell Grant recipients than the entire Ivy League put together, and thirty percent of our graduates are the first in their families to attend college. That amazing accomplishment – most of it built over the last half-century – is what’s under threat, and the main threat to its maintenance is simply lack of money from the state.

When Al Carnesale got to UCLA as Chancellor in 1978 1997, the budget handwriting was already on the wall: UC had slipped from spending 70% of what Stanford spent to teach an undergraduate in 1970 to spending 30% as much a quarter-century later. (The ratio must be even lower now.) Al said that we would know that the battle was lost when people stopped stating our aspiration as being among the greatest universities in the world and started talking about remaining one of the leading public universities in the country.

Alas, that’s where we are now. And without radical political action, led by the Office of the President, there’s little hope for better to come.

Yours,

Mark Kleiman

Comments

  1. Dennis says

    Mark,

    Where does the community college system fit in California’s funding of higher education?

    One of the things that we are seeing in New Mexico is a transfer of resources from the research campuses (UNM, NMSU and NM Tech) to the four “teaching” campuses (Eastern, Highlands, Northern, and Western) and (even more) to the community colleges.

    Don’t misunderstand me: I support the community colleges, I am a product of California’s CC system. CC’s need to be adequately funded, but it should not come at the expense of the research campuses.

  2. Mark Kleiman says

    The community college system has its own set of governing institutions – with elected local community college boards, which strikes me as crazy – but is part of the same “master plan.” The state contribution to the CC budget is about twice the total contribution to the UC-plus-CSU systems, but the contribution per student is only about a quarter of the comparable figure for UC.

    About half of UCLA’s graduates transfer in from community colleges after their first two years. Not clear to me that they do worse than those who start as freshmen.

  3. James Wimberley says

    Whichever you prefer, this is not an alternative letter but an additional one presenting an alternative viewpoint. The metonymy is dangerous as it suggests Ms Napolitano should plump for one or the other. She should study both, and might some food of thought in the comments.

    Mark does not as far as I can see disagree with Michael’s analysis of the problems, he just thinks it’s not the Chancellor’s job to fix them, only find the money so that the UC campuses can deal with them by collegial methods.

    There’s one key point in Michael’s favour. The California Master Plan was a political as well as an educational vision: a compact between Californian taxpayers and voters and their institutions of higher education. Elitist Humboldtian research values and Oxbridge liberal education, combined with mass participation and meritocratic opportunity for social mobility: it’s still a model for the rest of the world. Sadly, it’s broken or under grave threat in its homeland. The underfunding is a symptom of a wider crisis in the relationship between the polity and academe. I doubt if the Chancellor can fix the funding without addressing the crisis, which involves thinking hard about Michael’s issues.

    A point neither of you have raised is the huge opportunity created by IT for the learned to educate the citizenry throughout their lives, not just when young. Adult education and haute vulgarisation is more of a dialogue, and researchers can learn from it too: it’s still education, and should count as part of the teaching tax you pay on your research freedom. You both underestimate the educational value you (and Keith and Andy and Matthew and all) add on this blog, and other academics like Brad DeLong do on theirs: it has no value in career terms, but it should.

    • Mark Kleiman says

      Many academics do regard teaching as a tax they have to pay for their research freedom. But some of us are closer to thinking of research as a tax we have to pay for the right to teach. And yes, I count the RBC as part of both the teaching enterprise and the research enterprise.

  4. del2124 says

    Why prisons? Isn’t that sort of arbitrary? Spending the same amount on higher education that the state spends on prisons wouldn’t do anything to fix higher ed in the state.

  5. Ken Rhodes says

    Del–Yes, it’s arbitrary; it’s a “stalking horse.” You’ll note that the state spends just about as much on Higher Ed as it does on Corrections. Here is the latest enacted budget summary:
    http://www.ebudget.ca.gov/2013-14/pdf/Enacted/BudgetSummary/SummaryCharts.pdf

    However, also note Mark’s reply to Dennis, above: about 2/3 of the Higher Ed budget goes to Community Colleges. His proposal is specifically that the University budget ought to be equal to the Prisons budget, which would thus triple the University number.

    Alternatively, we might suspect that Mark is a closet Republican, suggesting the state should cut the Corrections budget by 2/3 so that it would be equal to the Universities budget. Overcrowded? Inhumane? Too bad. They’re criminals. Live with it.

  6. James Wimberley says

    Er, have you actually emailed both links to the Chancellor’s office? It’s easy to forget the obvious.

  7. Andy Ng says

    “According to Susanne Lohmann’s long-anticipated book, that statement has remained true for the approximately 1000 years that research universities have existed. They have always adapted, and always far too slowly to please their internal and external critics.”

    Does that mean that no university presidents need to innitiate changes, the education system will adapt itself?

  8. JPD says

    I find Mark’s analysis interesting, but I doubt it would persuade the unconverted. Publicly dismissing the legislature and Regents as ignorant fools is likely to provoke them to “meddle” more rather than less. Like it or not — and there are political and financial accountability arguments in favor of their oversight (as well, to be sure, as arguments against it based on how they actually have exercised that power) — they probably have a lot more influence over the future shape of UC than even all of the politically mobilized faculty combined. And we need to appreciate that an average California voter, probably anxious to make ends meet, may not be sympathetic to professors with a sense of entitlement to tax money (UCOP function #2). The optics are tough for us: our salaries are easy to find, they may strike many voters as high (especially since the most visible participants in the public debates are senior faculty), and many voters probably think that professors only have to work 10 hours a week (i.e., their classroom time) and have a 4 month summer vacation. That’s not my view, but it might be if I were a legislator, let alone a non-UC-affiliated voter/taxpayer. And Napolitano’s perspective may be a lot closer to theirs than ours.

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