Saving the University of California

Ask the voters to require that the UC system get at least half what the prisons get. It would pass in a landslide.

The University of California system is one of the great miracles of public management. Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego are all among the top 20 universities in the world; UCSF is one of the great medical centers; if Santa Barbara or Davis or Irvine were a flagship state university, it would be way better than most of its peers; and Santa Cruz, Riverside, and Merced are all more-than-respectable institutions. Aside from Berkeley, all of this greatness is the product of the past 60 years.

And we’re blowing it. The next round of budget cuts and tuition increases – the one that will follow the likely defeat of Proposition 30 – will be intolerable. And even if Prop. 30 passes, that provides a torniquet, not a transfusion. As Al Carnesale predicted, our ambition will slowly sink from being among the greatest universities in the world to being among the best public universities in the country. Financially, we will move – as other systems have – toward a publicly-owned set of self-supporting (in effect, private) universities, with much less access for the poor.

This is a matter of more than parochial interst. A great research university takes decades to build, but only years to destroy. The capacity represented by the UC system is a national asset, and one not easily replaced. Great research universities that also have graduating classes of 30% first-generation college-goers are simply unheard of. (U.Va., where I’m teaching this term, is a fabulous place, with terrific students. And 91% of those students have college-graduate parents. Social mobility? What’s that?)

I think it’s time for the University to stop relying on California’s feckless politicians and go straight to the voters. They don’t like spending money. They don’t like taxes, except on other people. But they do like the idea of a great university system. And they strongly dislike spending money on prisons, even as they demand toughness on crime. (I hope you weren’t looking for consistency in voter opinions.)

Here’s a proposition that, I am convinced, would pass, if we could get it on the ballot. And we could collect enough signatures right on campus to put it on the ballot:

The State of California shall not in any year spend more on its prison system than on its universities.

“Universities” includes the Cal State system. Or you could phrase it:

Funds appropriated for the University of California shall not, in any year, be less than half the funds appropriated for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

This year CDCR will spend about $9B, and the appropriation for the UC system is $2.2B, scheduled to be cut back by about $500M after Prop. 30 goes down. So the proposition would more or less double state funding, which would allow some recovery of quality and a reversal of the huge tuition increases of the past few years.

I’ve been pushing some version of this for about three years now, and my colleages get all goo-goo on me and refuse, on principle, to discuss the idea. After all, they say, government-by-proposition has ruined California.

Well, so it has. But if the institution is worth defending – which I fervently believe – then this is one of the times when we must rise above principle, and just do what’s right.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

28 thoughts on “Saving the University of California”

  1. Considering the aggressive self-seeking of the California prison guards’ union, this is a brilliant proposition. Sorry I can’t think of an academic equivalent to “three strikes” that would get the Cal system more income.

  2. God bless you for remembering the Calstates!!!

    I like the first one better.

    I’ve often wondered, could we pass a state Constitutional amendment that would undo all previous state Constitutional amendments which did not pass by 2/3rds? (I believe Prop. 13 just missed this.) And if we could, would that get rid of anything we’d want to keep that we couldn’t replace?

    And, there was a court case in the state Supreme Court on Prop. 13 recently, or at least I thought so. Anyone know what happened to that?

  3. Fittingly, the initiative would make California even more difficult to manage financially. At this point, we might as well just heighten the contradictions.

    Seriously, though, the Legislature does not really decide the financial needs of the prison system — at least not directly. Independent district attorneys, independent judges, independent juries and an independent parole board all determine sentences. All the Lege can do is write the checks.

    So I’m all for more more university spending, but in practice …

    1. Not entirely true. The Legislature writes the criminal laws, including the sentencing rules. And the Legislature decides which prisoners go to state prison and which get left in the county systems: a fine way of putting pressure on the counties to rein in the DA’s (via the budget process).

      1. Yes and no. The Legislature did not write and cannot amend the Three Strikes law. I’m not sure if it would be possible to legislatively repeal the preposterous waste of a death-penalty system either.

        And even if we’re over-sentencing felons because of the hangover of ’80s tough-on-crime policies, simply refusing to imprison serious criminals and shifting them to counties — more than the state already has — would be irresponsible from a safety perspective and politically infeasible. I mean, a great many of those lawmakers would be out of office at the next election.

        Surely there are better solutions than heightening the contradictions.

  4. University education costs too much. We’ve got a real bouquet here: students, many of whom are from privilege, get an education which enables them to do well in life. Their careers (some of them) benefit the community. How to pay for it? And what is ‘it’, anyhow? Arachnology from Evert Schlinger/ Organic Chem from Melvin Calvin? (yes I am that old!) Late night bull sessions in the dorms? Meeting your spouse? How to read literature carefully? How to call bullshit on political hucksters? That stuff is good. I want it for my kids, too. Providing that is not terribly costly, and in fact universities around the country are cutting corners and paying adjuncts nickels and most of the rest of it is still working. Kleiman and O’Hare and Schlinger and Calvin like being part of a faculty, that’s a lot of how you get them to do it, and they want support in advancing the field. Labs, field research, this starts to mount up. My kid wants to go to a school with swell sports teams, I suspect he will take his shirt off and paint the colors on his chest & face (I don’t want to be there when he does). More costs!

    If my kid, who I want to learn from Schlinger and O’Hare, goes drunken tailgating, you need a university police department, and you need to pension those guys when they hit 60. Price goes up again. If you win the court cases that let you take a ‘holistic’ look at your applicants, you need an admissions bureaucracy to take the holistic look, more increases. Baumol, who was he? Played tight end for the Rams, ten-fifteen years ago?

    I am kind of fixated on the burger flipper in Lodi, whose kids maybe graduated high school. Jerry Brown to the contrary, it’s not on the Lodi Flipper to pay for this wonderland for my kid. Mark is right that it’s something wonderful that kids not from privilege get to go to Riverside, though. There are equities in both directions, and I’m a Virginia voter, but if I were in Cali, probably I would vote against 30. I think tuition is the most just way to pay for it.

    1. I like your emphasis on equity, but I don’t see how trashing the uni system would help any burger flipper, anywhere. Growth comes in part from new inventions, which sometimes or often come from people who went to school. Without a good economy, no burger eaters.

      And the best way to charge individuals for eduction, imho, is to do one of those systems where you pay back your loans with a percentage of income. That way, people from poor backgrounds won’t be afraid to take on the debt. That, and public subsidies, since we all do benefit from education. (Or do you not believe that? One guy moving away hardly undermines it.)

    1. known in some circles as the Santa Barbara State Normal School of Manual Arts and Home Economics?

        1. Indeed. I know almost nothing about UCSB, except that it’s good in the life sciences.

      1. When I was at Berkeley, besides ‘Santa Barbara State Normal School of Manual Arts and Home Economics’, we useta say ‘Leland Stanford Junior University’. Cheap, yes, but fun.

  5. You said “…the UC system is $2.2B, scheduled to be cut back by about $500M after Prop. 30 goes down.” That’s not what the booklet has. It has 230m in reductions to UC and another 250m to CSU. Where’d you get 500m?

    1. One assumes he heard the same numbers of cuts-to-university-funding in your comment, and thought they were all to the UC, as opposed to half UC and half CSU.

  6. Prop 30 will lose and the UC system will become de facto private. That’s not so bad, UVA is an OK school.

    You can have a well functioning welfare state or racial diversity in a state but not both. California has gone with the latter, so should expect to look more and more like Texas, Arizona, and Latin America and less and less like northern and Western Europe.

    The change in public institutions follows the change in people. Whites pay the large majority of state taxes, are a small majority of voters, but only 22% of k-12 public school students. Given this terminal decline, they’ll never support higher taxes for schools.

  7. Although the idea sounds attractive,couldn’t the executive rearrange the prison system a bit so that a lot of the lower security prisons get rebranded ‘Educational Confinement Universities’ or something and attached to the university system? I don’t know California government in detail but presumably its bureaucracy must have got pretty adept at threading a crooked path through the tangle of approved propositions over the last 30 years?

    1. Given that US citizens in a particular age range are required by law to report to a government facility five days a week for about 39 weeks a year or they and their guardians risk fines and arrest, one could argue that this is already the case.

  8. Mark: A simple ballot proposition to solve the ills of California? How many times have you and I heard that in our lives? Part of the ungovernability of California stems from many such prior well-intended efforts to “get around the politicians”.

    I am bleak about the future of the state in any event, but certainly don’t think directly implemented legislation by vote will solve the situation. The legislators will start leading the state (and the people will demand they do so) or they won’t, and if they don’t all is lost.

  9. “…my colleages get all goo-goo on me and refuse, on principle, to discuss the idea.”

    Exactly. And until Democrats and fellow travelers STOP bringing nail clippers to a knife fight nothing will stop the slide. Nothing.

    BTW, two UC–Berkeley “founders,” John and Joseph Le Conte, were graduates of the University of Georgia. Sorry. Just had to throw that in.

  10. Mark, I’ve long opposed your idea on this not because I’m goo-goo but because I don’t think it would have a snowball’s chance in hell of passing–and its failure would have an awful effect on the UC, cementing the idea that taxpayers don’t want to pay for a first-rate public university system (true, but until now unproven) forever.

  11. Talk about self-interested rent-seeking feather-nesting state employees:

    A UC professor seeks to double UC spending without even thinking about whether CSU (let alone community college) spending should count when comparing penal spending to higher education. And no regard to actual incarceration needs or spending levels. (Should we save money by cutting prison healthcare?)

    That’s all on top of the more general point that one of California’s major governance problems is the fact that initiative-enacted constitutionalized budgeting and taxing constraints have made our legislative process generally — a situation that this proposal would greatly exacerbate.

    Kleiman is usually pretty smart, and this proposal is well below his standard. Let’s hope that soon he’ll post an update noting the many problems with his thought-experiment.

  12. The California is killing there best and brightest institutions in the world. Almost every wealthy countries (China, Korea, Japan, Saudi, Singapore… etc…) would love to spend the money to build these first class universities in theirs countries to support theirs nations & industries. Not Californian or America. How stupid are we ?

  13. As a faculty member at a CSU, I clearly like the first formulation better. I also think it is important to note that the value proposition is very good for both institutions – the UC certainly provides the bulk of (but not all of!) the research product of California Public Universities, but the CSU educates a lot more students, and, if I may say, educates them better in many regards at the undergraduate level. In the sciences, we offer smaller class sizes, more laboratory experiences, and more courses taught solely by tenured/tenure track faculty. This is a rule of thumb rather than a rule, and there are bound to be exceptions – this is also not a criticism of the UC faculty! They have a different job, with some overlap, and many/most of them do it very well – I have had basically nothing but good interactions with my faculty colleagues at UC. The degradation of both of these systems (the CC system is in trouble but it is funded along with K-12, so the issues are different) is a real shame. As we are amid our 5th consecutive academic year in the CSU with NO raises of any kind for the faculty (with a few exceptions) we are starting to see our best young faculty explore and then pursue other options, and get recruited away. Unlike Andrew, I don’t think a ballot proposal of this sort would fail, but I still dislike legislation by proposition. But I’m a pragmatist, and I’ll vote for it if it’s there!

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