Now and again, a piece of legislation crops up in Sacramento that seems to say: Our lawmakers have too much time on their hands.
Just as University of California President Janet Napolitano is announcing a freeze on the enrollment of in-state students, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) pushes a bill to create an 11th UC campus devoted to science and technology. The state has a surplus, Gatto says, so why not build another UC campus, a public version of Caltech for students to train in all those well-paid STEM jobs that companies offer in abundance but just can't find the graduates to fill? He's also added arts to the mix — STEAM, not STEM, get it? — because, one can only guess, the studio and performing arts industries are complaining about a lack of painters and aspiring actors.
What are the reasons for not doing it? That's a big universe. To start with, the big question about funding a new campus isn't the cost of building it (daunting as that is). Where the state lacks the money is in the every-year department — the professors and maintenance staff and equipment replacement. To be fair, this is a common California thing; voters have passed bonds for new parks, for example, but don't support fees or taxes to maintain and run those parks. Gatto appears to be proposing to take a UC budget that's already spread to the point of showing big holes and stretch it well beyond the breaking point.
Gatto also falls into the typical trap of believing that if only we could get more students to major in STEM fields, employment worries would be over. Again, it's hard to blame him; the Obama administration is particularly fond of repeating this as well. In truth, according to a large body of data, there is no indication of some huge shortage of scientists and engineers being trained for these careers. The main people who like to say so are the major employers themselves, and they have a vested interest in pushing to train students in these fields. An ever-bigger surplus of qualified applicants tends to push the field toward lower pay and longer hours; it also gives those industries a political leg up on loosening immigration rules so that foreign workers can be imported and paid even less.
There are shortages in a few specific fields — such as petroleum engineers. But some excellent articles and a book by a Harvard researcher have been written about a supposed shortage that, if not an entire fiction, is at least wildly exaggerated.
But one thing there is no shortage of: outstanding science and engineering schools that already educate students throughout the UC system. In biology, chemistry, engineering and computer science, Berkeley is routinely ranked among the top two to four schools nationwide. San Diego is famous for biotechnology. Santa Barbara, though relatively young and small, has four Nobel laureates in physics. The list goes on.
What's needed is robust support for the extraordinary programs UC already has, not thinly spread resources for all in order to make way for another campus.