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11.11.09

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Bullhorn

"Many of us are very worried about the trajectory that will make the University of California an enclave of the privileged," writes retired UCSC teacher Don Rothman, a week before UC regents meet to discuss a 32 percent tuition hike.

By Don Rothman


MANY OF US are very worried about the trajectory that will make the University of California an enclave of the privileged. Huge fee hikes (a.k.a. tuition) violate the principles on which public higher education in California and across the United States evolved. The promise of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, signed into law by President Lincoln, was that public universities would serve democracy and the economy. Our country aspired, however imperfectly, to create an electorate literate enough to read newspapers and ballots, and capable of designing roads and bridges, discovering agricultural efficiencies, performing life-saving medical miracles and composing lyric poems.

Since the 19th century these public universities have provided working, middle- and upper-class students access to each other in the presence of teacher/scholars and researchers. For many of us, a public university is still a site of hope, optimism and pragmatic necessity. So what's the problem?

At the next Regents meeting at UCLA in mid-November, UC leadership is likely to impose a 32 percent fee increase, which comes on top of other recent substantial increases. If this occurs, fall 2010 tuition will be $10,302. One way to put this in perspective: in 1999 a minimum-wage worker had to labor 18 weeks to pay UC fees; by next fall it may be 32 weeks.

No one questions that these huge increases make it harder or impossible for many to even think about attending UC. Why should we care?

Defenders of the legacy of public higher education often make the economic engine argument. They point out that California, in particular, needs well-educated workers to sustain its information economy. The governor has used the same argument, however, to justify fee hikes, pointing out that a university degree is worth a fortune in lifetime income. I want to focus on noneconomic reasons to be concerned about the narrowing of UC's entrances. As someone who taught writing at UC for almost four decades, I had the privilege of welcoming an amazing diversity of students to the world of higher education. Many were the first in their families to attend college.

In college these students not only acquired useful skills. They also learned to think together with their diverse styles, cultures and dialects to solve problems and confront enduring texts. They reinvented their lives, discovering the value of separating from, analyzing and, ultimately, contributing to their home communities. They learned the strengths of diversity in confronting enormously challenging global problems. They learned to take responsibility for our planet, for other people's children and for sustaining personal integrity as they take intellectual and social risks.

How could we not be alarmed by the very real possibility that in raising the cost of public higher education we will be shrinking a precious resource for democracy that no other institution comes close to replicating? UC President Mark Yudof has told us that in order to preserve educational quality enormous fee hikes are necessary. It seems to me that the real educational quality we ought to be preserving is possible only if California's diversity is evident on our campuses. I'm talking about measuring excellence, not only in terms of Nobel prizes and departmental rankings, but also in how we help young people to transform their lives and to improve the world. Why not make your views known to the UC Regents and the governor? Visit http://checkingeducation.com/petition to read a petition by the UCSC Faculty Association to preserve university funding.

Don Rothman is a retired professor of writing at UCSC.


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