Whether academic officials like it or not, Gov. Jerry Brown has a few good ideas for the state's four-year university systems: Reduce administrative bulk, keep tuition costs down. But several of his demands show a lack of understanding of the universities' role, especially the University of California, in attracting great minds to the state. The UC system Brown outlines — one in which professors do more teaching and less research and state funding is tied to whether the colleges graduate a certain percentage of students — could change the very nature of the state's premier public universities, turning them into workmanlike producers of academic degrees.
UC and California State University operate with virtual autonomy, as they should. The framers of the California Master Plan for Higher Education understood that great colleges are run by academics, not by politicians. But that doesn't mean the universities should expect taxpayers and students to uncomplainingly absorb the cost of bloated administrative ranks and ever-higher pay for university officials. In addition, students who have completed far more course credits than they need to graduate should either pay the full, unsubsidized price for additional credits or take their degrees and go. Brown is right to connect future funding increases to these issues; taxpayers shouldn't pick up the tab for sloth or waste.
But Brown's proposal goes beyond that, interfering inappropriately in decisions that should be made by educators. Not only does he want professors to teach more and do less research, but he also suggests that funding should be tied to higher graduation rates and to the acceptance of more transfer students from community colleges. If Brown succeeds, these policies could tarnish the reputation of the state's storied public higher education system. Linking funding to graduation rates would provide an incentive to lower academic standards so that more students could take degrees. And both university systems already have been working on ways to provide a smoother path for community college students to transfer, but they should not be encouraged to lower admission requirements just to increase the numbers.
Brown's proposals could particularly damage the University of California, which was conceived as a system of research universities that would rival the best in the nation. UC professors already are given fewer perks than many of their counterparts at other universities, including less support for research and publication. Some have left as a result. Reducing still further the amount of time they have for non-teaching duties would almost surely mean a major exodus of talent. Professors, top graduate students and even many of the state's top high school students would go elsewhere. With them would go not just a source of pride but the kind of intellectual power that made California the home of high-tech and biotech industries. UC has been more than worth the investment California has made in it over the years. Brown's proposed efficiencies could carry a heavy price.