A Perspective on UC Berkeley’s Financial Dilemma

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I was looking through my drafts and found this little gem, dated back to February 28, 2012. Not sure why it wasn’t properly published… if I had to guess I’d say I was excessively apprehensive about imagined backlash for posting something potentially controversial. Well, I’m graduated and 7,500 miles away now, and, well… haters gonna hate.

I’ve really come to enjoy this blog. I feel after two weeks that it is the outlet I never knew I was missing until I had it. Multiple times per week I’ll be struck by an urge to put something down in paper– and now I have a pen that I actually like.

So this time I thought I’d write about a few related ideas I’ve been kicking around for a while on the topic of the UC’s financial crisis.

In my model, UC Berkeley is performing a service to the State of California, by educating its youth and ensuring California’s continued relevance into the future. UC Berkeley (and other UCs, hereafter collectively referred to as the UC) are autonomous organizations that provide this service in exchange for support from the state. That’s important–the UC has an existence and purpose that is independent from that of California. It’s the University of California, not the California Education Administration.

California subsidizes it’s students to attend the UC–and students who come from out-of-state pay significantly more than California residents to attend. We can say then that the out-of-state tuition rate represents the full value of the education we receive as UC students. California residents receive a subsidized education–we pay a significantly reduced rate. This subsidy is, of course, courtesy of the state.

So rather than see the UC as a neglected member in the State’s suite of social services, why don’t we claim our identity as an independent university, and tell the state that we’ll educate California residents in the same proportion as the state of California funds our operations. In other words, if the state funds 100% of the UC, then 100% of UC students will be subsidized California residents. If the state funds 40% of the UC, then the UC admits 40% Californians (and subsidizes their tuition), and opens up the other 60% of the spots to out-of-state students.

It becomes the state’s decision, then, to what extent the UC is serving Californian residents. Rather than force the UC to cut programs and quality to try to keep pace with the cuts, we could simply dissociate the UC from the state entirely, and re-envision the relationship as a contractual one. California would subsidize as many Californians as it is willing to attend the UC, with all other spots being open to anybody in the country. This turns the UC into a university first, and a public service second. The state, and the state alone, determines to what extent it will support public education.

I consider this the “Aikido” approach to the budget crisis. A core principle  in Aikido is to be “like water” and absorb and react gracefully to various situations. The UC could rely on a constant stream of tuition, with out-of-state tuition counter-balancing a reduction in state funding, and an increase in state funding reserving more spots for California students. As the circumstances change from year to year, the UC could adapt fluidly.

The advantage of this solution is that the UC can focus on educating students, research, and excellence without the burdens of financial struggle. The importance of the UC focusing on the quality of its education is critically important for its long-term success. A reputation like the UC’s took decades to build, and can be lost much more quickly if quality continues to decline. As long as it can attract out-of-state students willing to pay the full price, the UC can survive. If its reputation is tarnished, then it will be much harder pressed to attract excellent students, and drawing out-of-state students will become increasingly more difficult.

I realize this analysis may seem callous, and I definitely recognize that the UC has room to make improvements in efficiency and cost-cutting. But fundamentally, it is the responsibility of the UC to educate, not to ensure that all Californians are educated. While rhetoric abounds around the idea of “Education as a Right,” education requires teachers, facilities, and resources. If these resources are not being provided, then education becomes very difficult to attain. Securing these resources is the responsibility of the state, not the University.

There is some grace in this solution. Instead of the UC being caught in between the state and the students, the UC is simply a vehicle for change, and the conversation of priorities is held between the state and its students. Furthermore, this would make it harder for the state to delegate its problems to the UC, since the state’s level of funding will directly translate to how many Californians will receive quality, subsidized education. This insulates the UC from the financial tumult, and creates much more relevant avenues of conversation by connecting those impacted (the students) to those making the impacts (legislators). The resulting clarity would–I hope–help all sides assess the situation and move forward in a realistic way.

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