Thinking About Ways To Save Public Universities


A little over a week ago, the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor of UC Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau and Frank Yeary wrote an op-ed published on both coasts arguing for a new hybrid model as a means to save California’s public universities.

They wrote:

“The economic crisis has made this a countrywide phenomenon, with devastating cuts in some states, including California. Historically acclaimed public institutions are struggling to remain true to their mission as tuition rises and in-state students from middle- and low-income families are displaced by out-of-state students from higher socioeconomic brackets who pay steeper fees. While America is fortunate to have many great private universities, we do not need to add to the list by privatizing Berkeley, Illinois, Rutgers, etc. On the contrary, we need to keep our public research and teaching universities excellent and accessible to the vast majority of Americans.”
Their proposal is for the federal government should create a hybrid model,

“in which a limited number of our great public research and teaching universities receive basic operating support from the federal government and their respective state governments. Washington might initially choose a representative set of schools, perhaps based on their research achievements, their success in graduating students, commitment to public service and their record in having a student body that is broadly representative of society.

Washington would provide sufficient additional funding for operations and student support to ensure broad access and continued excellence at these universities. A portion of these resources would ensure that out-of-state and in-state students pay the same tuition and have access to the same financial aid packages. The combined federal-state funding must be sufficient for these universities to maintain their preeminence as well as charge moderate fees to all U.S. citizens and permanent residents.”

A report in the Contra Costa Times tells us the idea was well received in Washington, but they lack the money to act on it.

“They were enthusiastic,” said Birgeneau, who said he had spoken with Department of Education officials and was told not to expect any movement for at least the next two years. “But they told me they had no money.”

President Barack Obama has been clear about his higher-education priorities for his first term, said Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton, and that list does not yet include Birgeneau’s proposal.

“You look at the fight we’re having over health care reform right now,” Hamilton said. “That’s just this year’s budget. Realistically speaking, we’ve kind of got the table set at this point for the next couple of years.”

Leaders from the University of California have taken their case to both Sacramento and Washington, arguing for better funding using claims that the schools are losing ground to competition in other states and other countries.

UC President Mark Yudof said recently:

“It’s a national problem, and we need a national solution.  It’s time that we had a national discussion.”


This is probably not the ultimate answer but it does illustrate the problem.  The public university model is now in serious trouble, the leadership in the UC system recognizes that and is to a large extent powerless to change things.  Even before the current economic crisis, funding to UC and CSU had declined substantially over the period of several years.  In an ironic way, the economic crisis may have helped the leadership at UC to see the broader problem.

In some ways this is the frog in boiling water analogy.  Over the course of twenty years incrementally funding had diminished for the UC system, but it was slow enough to avoid detection.  It is only in crisis do we see that we are sitting in boiling water and the problems are as bad as they are.

The problem is now as clear as ever, but the solution is more elusive than ever.  Our state government is quite simply incapable of being able to solve our problems.  Indeed they struggle with the mundane problems.  No realistic person should have any faith in Sacramento, nevertheless we need to figure out what our priorities are in this state and figure out a way to address them.

There will be a lot of focus on the Governor’s race in the coming months.  There is no doubt that the current Governor is part of the problem.  But we also see that the Governor position is almost powerless to change things.  Right or wrong the Governor is trying to force the legislature to do things and having little success at it.  He was unable to broker a budget deal in a timely manner and appears equally unable to get reform legislation through.  And while I may disagree with much of what he is doing, it is clear how limited the governor’s power actually is.

The legislature is equally impotent when it comes to budgetary measures–hamstrung in part by citizen initiatives and an archaic two-thirds system.  Without reform, this system is in serious trouble that is becoming more and more evident.

Many undoubtedly look at the federal government as a huge albatross, but it may be akin to the one-eyed giant.  In the land of the blind, the one-eyed giant is king and the last best hope for public higher education may in fact be the behemoth that is the federal government.  It is an intriguing idea whose time has not quite come yet, but whose time is likely approaching quickly to at least ponder the ramifications of such a move.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Oh Give Me A Break!

    Oh for crikey’s sake, the feds are in no shape to help anyone out. They are running record deficits they can’t pay off ever. There is no way on God’s green earth the feds have the wherewithal or money to bail out the public university system in this country. And what university’s would get the help? The favored ones? The ones that have political connections? How fair is that, or even desirable?

    Yudof is whining to the feds, bc he himself is very much a part of the reason the UC system is in trouble. He is perpetuating an existing entitlement program at the expense of students, that has gone on for years. Overly abundent administration, athletic coaches are entitled to big fat salaries, even in times of fiscal crisis. Unfettered expansion is the order of the day, e.g. at UCD alone a new stadium, convention center, wine institute, music auditorium. This unfettered expansion goes on even in times of fiscal trouble. UCD has a full counseling center when outsourcing to local therapists would be a good deal cheaper. UCD has a full sex crime prevention program in place, based on crime stats that were doctored.

    It is also laughable for Yudof to complain about the privatization of the UC system, when he himself is the driving force behind it. Look at Katehi – she bragged about UCD becoming one of the top five research universities in the country. If that wasn’t a clear message about privatization, I don’t know what is.

    These examples are only the tip of the iceberg, I suspect. There is huge waste in public universities, just as there is in federal, state and local gov’t. The taxpayers’ collective pockets are now tapped out, and federal and state and local gov’t is finding that raising taxes just won’t work anymore. The entire Ponzi scheme of using taxpayer money that really wasn’t there (housing bubble; dotcom bubble) is a house of cards that has come tumbling down. Much like the city of Davis, there are structural problems that need to be dealt with, but too many politicians have no stomach for tackling the difficult issues. It is time they did…

  2. Greg Kuperberg

    In one sense, Birgenau is describing things as they already are. The University of California already gets more money from federal research grants than from the state compact. But this is not money to teach students, although a slice of the grant overhead does go to that purpose.

    In another sense, Birgenau is asking for the same type of solution as we have already seen for California’s prisons: federal receivership. A big fraction of the California state budget has simply failed, and there is no one to turn to other than the feds.

    In a third sense, Birgenau’s proposal is self-serving for UC, and for UC Berkeley in particular. UC Berkeley is the most prestigious public university in the United States, and most of the other UC campuses are also high on the list. A program for a “limited number” of universities, that focuses on the top public universities, would particularly benefit UC.

    That’s fine by me. You could make a good argument that UC is a boon for the whole United States. Sacramento has gone crazy and is in no position to hear about UC’s merits, but maybe Washington is willing to listen. Although if I were in Washington handing out this money, one certain consequence would be more out-of-state students and stricter admissions for in-state students.

    [i]In an ironic way, the economic crisis may have helped the leadership at UC to see the broader problem.[/i]

    They really did not need this disaster to get educated. Yudof wrote in 2002 about wavering state commitment to higher education in the US in general. Dynes issued a report before the economic crisis that the state compact was deteriorating and that fee hikes only partly made up for the cuts.

    The economic crisis could help get people to listen to them.

    [i]The legislature is equally impotent when it comes to budgetary measures–hamstrung in part by citizen initiatives and an archaic two-thirds system.[/i]

    That is blaming the same thing twice. The two-thirds rule to pass a budget came from Proposition 1 in 1933, while the two-thirds rule to raise state taxes came from Proposition 13 in 1978.

  3. Huh?

    “That’s fine by me. You could make a good argument that UC is a boon for the whole United States. Sacramento has gone crazy and is in no position to hear about UC’s merits, but maybe Washington is willing to listen. Although if I were in Washington handing out this money, one certain consequence would be more out-of-state students and stricter admissions for in-state students.”

    In other words, if you want to go to a good university, you will have to pay out of state tuition. Essentially what you are advocating for is that students from low or middle income families cannot get into good public universities, bc they just don’t have the money to pay for out of state tuition. Not my idea of what public universities are all about.

  4. Greg Kuperberg

    [i]In other words, if you want to go to a good university, you will have to pay out of state tuition.[/i]

    It’s not what I advocate, it’s what Sacramento actually provides. The state legislature is free to give a thousand speeches in favor of a big gap between in-state fees and out-of-state tuition. I wouldn’t disagree. But if they want that gap, they should pay for it!

    And by the same token, if education money comes from Washington, why not use it to reduce out-of-state tuition?

  5. Moravecglobal

    $3,000,000 UC/UCB Reckless Spending In a Recession: University of California President Yudof Approves $3,000,000 to Outsource UCB Chancellor’s Job
    The UC President has a UCB Chancellor that should do the high paid job he is paid for instead of hiring an East Coast consulting firm to fulfill his responsibilities. ‘World class’ smart executives like Chancellor Birgeneau need to do the analysis, hard work and make the difficult decisions of their executive job!
    Where do consulting firms like Bain ($3,000,000 consultants) get their recommendations?
    From interviewing the senior management that hired them and will be approving their monthly consultant fees and expense reports. Remember the nationally known auditing firm who said the right things and submitted recommendations that senior management wanted to hear and fooled government oversight agencies and the public?
    Mr. Birgeneau’s executive officer performance management responsibilities include “inspiring innovation and leading change.” This involves “defining outcomes, energizing others at all levels and ensuring continuing commitment.” Instead of demonstrating his capacity to fulfill his executive accountabilities, Mr. Birgeneau outsourced them. Doesn’t he engage University of California and University of California Berkeley (UCB) people at all levels to help examine the budget and recommend the necessary trims? Hasn’t he talked to Cornell and the University of North Carolina – which also hired Bain — about best practices and recommendations that might apply to UCB cuts?
    No wonder the faculty and staff are angry and suspicious. Three million dollars is a high price for Californians to pay when a knowledgeable ‘world-class’ Chancellor is not doing his job.
    Please help save $3,000,000 for teaching our students and request that the UC President require the UCB Chancellor to fulfill his executive job accountabilities!

  6. Moravecglobal

    Why does one of the top universities in the world have to spend $3 million of taxpayer money for consultants to do what should be done internally by UCB Chancellor Birgeneau?
    Who teaches auditors how to audit? Do UC professors not have the knowledge to perform what they teach?
    Having firsthand knowledge of consulting, I know one cardinal rule, “Don’t bite the hand that pays you.”
    In a nutshell, we have a high-paid, skilled UCB Chancellor who is unable or unwilling to do the job he is paid to do. Why do we wonder that UC and California are in a financial crisis!
    I’m sure taxpayers would not object to the $3 million payout if the money is reimbursed by taking money from the UCB Chancellor’s salary over the next 10 years.
    Stop the spending of $3,000,000 on consultants by President Yudof and the UCB Chancellor and do the job impartially and internally These days ever dollar counts

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