University looking to cut yet another $1 billion

When I left a newspaper reporting job to join Scripps Institution of Oceanography 10 years ago, I was headed to a place where I knew a reporter could go and not feel like he'd just sold his soul to the devil. You see, journalists are taught from an early age that PR is inherently evil.

From my days on the science beats of several papers, I knew Scripps had an invincible reputation among journos and scientists alike as the Harvard of oceanography, the Oxford of climate change research. And it was on a beach.

Also, the premise of Scripps and the rest of the University of California system appealed to my journalist's sense of moral good. The university system provides Ivy League-level education not through the philanthropy of people of privilege or largesse of an aristocracy. The people of California through consent and contribution created a world-class pedigree in little more than a century. The people of California decided they wanted excellence, they were willing to pay for it and they were invested in making sure to share that excellence to all students who could meet its standards.

But now the university is in a nearly impossible position. This year, once again, it has to choose between cutting even more fundamental services or pricing itself even farther out of the reach of the people it once prided itself on opening its doors to. The university is looking for ways to cut yet another $1 billion. If voters do not allow for the extension of taxes this year, it will be worse.

Of course, California is not alone. It is part of a pattern of poverty felt most acutely in states with large populations and vast infrastructures. It affects red states like Texas and blue-ish states like Illinois and very blue states like Massachusetts. Nationally we're in a mood to cut, cut, cut taxes, but it's not always clear to me that people know when they've removed all the fat from government services and have begun to cut into bone.

It's ludicrous to imagine Harvard becoming a third-rate college because of cash flow and absurd to think of Oxford having to cut back its course offerings because of funding cuts. We can't get comfortable with the University of California becoming something much closer to average, much more limited in its promise. It's not just a pride thing. The UC system creates the workforce the United States needs to create 21st Century jobs. The fact that its campuses rate so high in bargain university surveys (six UCs are in the 2011 Princeton Review "best value" survey) shows that it is still the only bridge available to many children from low-income families trying to better their lives.

In the past decade the university system has dealt with cutbacks then cutbacks to those cutbacks. It has endured mass layoffs and furloughs. UC has lost a few rising stars of research to out-of-state universities. Its once-opulent pension system was self-sustaining when the stock market was red hot but now is on par or less generous than the 401k matching offered by many private employers. The university redirected its small match to our 403b plans a few years ago to fund the pension and now it is going further. In July, we'll start paying a chunk of our salary into the pension and the following year that contribution will double. The bottom line is it's simply lazy thinking to think there's something significant to be gained by cutting even more from the UC system.

Luckily I think Californians know when enough is enough even in an era where voicing support for tax increases is blasphemy. In a January poll, six in 10 likely voters told the Public Policy Institute of California that they would be willing to pay higher taxes to support schools and universities.

Suffice to say, I'm broke and angry about it like a lot of people but I really don't think my taxes are to blame. Middle-class and lower-income Americans everywhere are lashing out but as has been pointed out, they are fighting with each other over pieces of a shrinking pie. Wealth in an absolute sense is being taken away from them and concentrating in the hands of the already-wealthy. Underfunding our elite system of universities doesn't solve this problem. In fact, it drastically diminishes the opportunity to solve it.

Monroe is editor of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography explorations online magazine.

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Merry Maisel 8:30pm March 3, 2011

I think that everything Robert Monroe has said is correct except for the very last line. The opportunity to solve the problem is available to all, especially those within the universities. Faculty and staff can work to strengthen the opposition to the concentration of wealth by strengthening the unions they have and organizing unions where none exist. Who better to run the university than those who constitute its workers? And students can organize also, joining and supporting staff and TA unions where those exist, and organizing student support for the actions that will need to be taken. There is no need for us to shrug our shoulders and accept our fate, but no single individual and certainly no politician represents the solution. Only our own organizations can pose and fight for the measures that will answer the takeaways.