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Davis, California

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Guest opinion: Charge more or cut?

As our state goes through yet another incarnation of budget hell, Californians of all walks of life continue to suffer. Much attention has been focused on the impact of our budget troubles on education, and as many a parent of college-aged students will gladly offer, no issue has been as immediately costly as the rising price of a college education. 

In a state where we rightly pride ourselves on having the greatest assortment and quality of higher education opportunities in the world, and for living in an economy built upon the foundation of our investment in higher education, we have a strong reason to take pride in and protect post-secondary opportunity for all Californians.

Yet for all the benefits our investment in higher education provides, the enormous brain trust of leaders in public higher education, from chancellors to administrators to legislators and yes, governors, have only been able to face the nearly predictable yet dynamic predicament of state budget shortfalls with two responses: “charge students more” and “cut “. It’s hard to believe that the most daunting economic challenge we have faced as a state and nation has been met with the collective thud of all that experience, intelligence and brain power, unable to muster more than two answers: charge more and cut.   

Could it be our so-called leaders have forgotten how to answer the question “what is our mission?” Maybe they can be forgiven, since if they did realize the history and mission of higher education in our state, we would probably be exploring creative options to continue providing a world-class education that literally drives worldwide industries. Perhaps if they understood the commitment to opportunity that has fueled the greatness of our state, they would understand that much more needs to be done to support the goals of students, families and generations before us. The fundamental mission of the UC is “teaching, research, and public service,” yet many would be hard pressed to argue for the quality of leadership that protects this mission with “charge more” and “cut”.

Has the gravity of the situation overwhelmed the collective abilities of our leaders? Such challenges can be paralyzing, but we deserve better options as Californians who support higher ed. Eugene Bardach at the Goldman School of Public Policy writes that one of the first approaches to addressing an outcome of a policy issue is to “let present trends continue undisturbed.” It seems this has been the only response by public leaders, since it was the organizing and protesting efforts of students that were the catalyst for protecting higher ed from further cuts last year.

At a fundamental level, our leaders have forgotten that classes, schools, campuses and our state’s higher ed enterprise at large is a community. They have consistently failed to proactively engage our community in meeting these challenges together, and in their decisions to impose higher fees and cutting services and staff they have impugned far more than the quality of our education; they have taken advantage of our trust. They have chosen not to engage the community as equals who could share the burden and face the challenges together. As we in the ironically titled Doctorate in Educational Leadership program here at UC Davis experienced, they have summarily raised fees 32 percent in on our cohort without consultation, with no consideration given to family budgets, to colleagues in professions whose very jobs are threatened by budget decisions, and with little regard to options that may help to assuage the sacrifices families must make to pursue the very education their taxes help fund. 

For those of us who believe in leadership by example, it is enormously difficult to be anything but disappointed in our own community members. While many families wonder if they can afford the rising costs our leaders ask us to pay, perhaps we should be asking if we could actually afford the leadership they continue to offer.  

Adalai Stevensen once said, “Understanding human needs is half the job of meeting them.” Leaders of higher education in California seem to not understand the needs of students, our communities or our state. A failure to see your fellow student and colleague as an equal is one of the greatest signs of mistrust. So long as our leaders continue to make decisions absent of participation and input from the community, from students and from families, they will fail at protecting the public trust, our trust, and the mission of our state. 


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