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Students, faculty, parents rail against cuts to higher education at Berkeley legislative hearing

– In an effort to reverse the impacts of the current state budget crisis on the University of California, UC President Robert Dynes earlier this month entered into a compact with his counterpart at the California State University and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The agreement that Dynes and CSU Chancellor Charles Reed signed onto, announced on May 11, is intended to "stop the bleeding" that four years of budget cuts has caused, stabilize state support for UC and CSU over the next several years, and set the stage for future enrollment growth in both systems.

Hearing webcast
Watch the May 21 hearing at International House convened by the California Assembly Committee on Higher Education

That compact, though not ultimately binding on the state (because it is the Legislature that ultimately must, following negotiations with the governor, approve the final 2004-05 budget), has already had some tangible effects - among them the approval of student-fee increases by the CSU Board of Trustees last Wednesday, May 19, and the UC Board of Regents (after some hesitation) the following day.

Equally tangible to anyone attending Friday's State Assembly informational hearing on the Berkeley campus are the anger and dismay still felt by students, parents, faculty, taxpayers, and some legislators over the compact, the ongoing cuts to higher-education budgets statewide, and the implications of these perceived reversals on the future of California.

Several themes resonated throughout the nearly three-hour hearing (the last hour of which was spent hearing public comments): the compact's perceived attempt to "balance the budget on the backs of students"; the repercussions for the entire higher-education system of turning thousands of eligible students away from UC; the impacts on the state's economy of further reducing funding for research and innovation; and, perhaps most frequently and heatedly, the disconnect between the new compact and the one that many participants insisted it violates: the California Master Plan for Higher Education of 1960. That plan constitutes a guarantee that the top 12.5 percent of high school seniors in California will be granted freshman admission to a UC campus. (Students performing below that level are still, under the Master Plan, eligible for admission to CSU or the community colleges.) But this year, the fourth consecutive one in which budget cuts have imposed a range of constraints on the UC system, the university has finally been obliged to reject a number of otherwise qualified students outright - a consequence that UC's Office of the President insists its compact with Schwarzenegger will prevent from recurring. (UC Berkeley was able to meet its budgetary goals without reducing the number of freshmen admitted for the fall of 2004.)

Assemblymember Carol Liu, who chairs that house's Higher Education Committee, was one of five legislators in attendance at Friday's hearing. In her opening remarks, she pointedly referred to the compact as "proposed," even though certain of its provisions have been advanced. "While the leadership of our public university seems to regard this compact as a positive development," she said, "our commitment is to maintaining the promise of the original Master Plan. It has served us well, and we should not walk away from its promises."

Wilma Chan, the next chair of the Assembly's budget subcommittee on education finance, noted to applause that that body had voted just two days earlier to reject the compact. (Many Democrats in the Legislature were angered by the announcement of the compact, holding that it undercut their legislative prerogative while representing, perhaps, a poorer deal for higher education than they might have been able to broker during the summer's negotiations.) "A deal cut in the middle of the night between one or two people does not reflect the will of the people," she said.

San Francisco Assemblymember Mark Leno spoke even more frankly, first thanking the audience "for allowing us the opportunity to share our rage with you." The first of several speakers to characterize the new round of fee increases as de facto tax increases, he continued: "To devastate our higher-education infrastructure, to destroy the dreams of hardworking students, and to make California less competitive in a very competitive global marketplace, all to prostrate ourselves before the false idol of 'no new taxes,' is completely absurd."

Not every speaker chose to focus his or her remarks on the controversial compact, even though, as the most recent and high-profile budget-related event apart from the approved fee increases themselves, it offered a target many could not resist. Professor Ron Gronsky, chair of the Berkeley Division of the UC Academic Senate (sitting in for Chancellor Berdahl, who was called away on family business), spoke calmly from a prepared statement, though his message was anything but disinterested.

"We've now had three years in a row of severe budget cuts from Sacramento," said Gronsky, "and we're looking with shock and dismay at a fourth. .The cuts made last year, and those contemplated for this year, are simply not absorbable anymore. . And the timing couldn't be worse: Over the past four years, state support for the university has fallen by 16 percent, while student enrollments have grown [by the same factor]." State support, he continued, "modest as it is, is still critical to Berkeley's ability to attract and manage over half a billion dollars in federal research grants each year. Indeed, every dollar in state support to UC leverages four dollars in research funding." The research conducted on UC campuses, he said, "enhances the quality of life for all Californians, generates new knowledge, replenishes and extends our scholarship, and fuels innovation."

The latter point was reinforced by the lone private-sector speaker at the hearing, IBM's Robert Morris, who cited a recent National Council on Competitiveness initiative intended to combat recent negative trends in that area that, he said, "are going to leave this country ill equipped to be the world's innovation leader, with major economic implications for all of us." Innovation "makes the world go 'round," he said, noting that the primary locus of innovation is the university. Morris challenged the common conception that discoveries made in universities "require some arcane process called technology transfer" to be made ready for commercialization; frequently, he said, the process runs in reverse. Of the five examples he offered in support of that contention, four - RISC computing, RAID storage, relational databases, and the UNIX operating system - were developed, in whole or in part, by UC Berkeley. "Simply put," he concluded," "if [California wants] to continue leading the world in technical achievement, we must continue investing in higher education."

Absent such investment, said Berkeley Professor of Mechanical Engineering Andrew Szeri, who chairs the campus Academic Senate Graduate Council committee, the quality of research at UC will decline. "Talented faculty will leave," he predicted, "in part because they wish to work with talented graduate students." California's "brain gain" will suffer accordingly, he said, as the best and brightest graduate students look outside California for their education and training. Schwarzenegger and Dynes, by agreeing to "work toward charging graduate students fees 50 percent higher than undergraduates [pay] over the long term," have produced, Szeri said softly, "poor public policy."

The most impassioned voices heard during the formal portion of the hearing came from students themselves. Anu Joshi, a Berkeley student who is external vice president of the ASUC, predicted a decline in the quality of undergraduate education as severe as the one that Szeri warned about for graduate students. GSIs, she said, "are already being told to offer more multiple-choice exams gradable by Scantron, to hold fewer office hours, and to teach classes more than double the recommended size." She also criticized the element of the compact that redirects rejected UC applicants to the CSU or community college systems, noting that so far only 600 students out of the 7,620 denied UC admission have accepted the guaranteed transfer option. "This means we are either losing these students to other institutions, or losing them to higher education altogether," she said.

Several other UC Berkeley students spoke against the proposed elimination of funding for outreach programs designed to prepare disadvantaged or underperforming students for college education. (Though funding for outreach programs has suffered in recent budgets, and is not protected for 2004-05, it was not explicitly addressed in the recent State/UC/CSU compact.) "Without the Educational Opportunity Program," said undergraduate Trang Le, one of several students who spoke of the role outreach had played in their personal histories, "I wouldn't be sitting here."

The students' testimony provoked cheers and applause from the audience, which included a substantial number of their peers and supporters. But the testimony of the one adult sitting on that panel reduced the audience to silence, as Mary Doyle, the parent of a high-school senior rejected for admission to UC for fall 2004, made her plea for restoring funding to higher education:

"My son began preparing for college four years ago," Doyle began. "He's taken all the right courses: four years of science, four years of math, plus history, literature, and the rest. He studied and took the SAT 1 and SAT 2 two separate times, while playing football, participating in student government, doing peer counseling, and working during the summer. . He worked honorably, as have thousands of other young people who dreamed of the education promised them by the state of California. Yet this January, two months after the UC [application] deadline, the promise was broken when the governor decided to deny admission to these highly qualified students in order to balance the budget. .On what grounds were these students eliminated? Were they less qualified than the rest of the pool? .The students kept their part of the bargain, but the university, the Regents, and the governor have not kept theirs."