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Rethinking Higher Education : Tenure, campus autonomy, unfettered research--these may be ideas whose time has passed in California.

Adela de la Torre is chair of the department of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach.

As the California deficit continues to soar, so does the crisis in public higher education. Top administrators from UC, Cal State and the community colleges continue to wring their hands about the impending impact of last years cuts. Tenured faculty who in the past were immune from the vicissitudes of sporadic economizing are beginning to recognize that even their feudal hierarchy of fiefdoms may not survive the wrath of management’s budget-tightening measures. Students well aware of the uncertainty rush to meet course requirements for graduation before the next announcement of a 40% fee hike.

For decades, California had been on the cutting edge of higher education--a model of affordability and access. Students were charged nominal fees, not the exorbitant tuition of private institutions such as Stanford, to allow for the best and the brightest of the state to become the rising stars of industry, medicine and education. Yet with last year’s round of budget cuts, this model has rapidly degenerated, so that access and affordability may become mutually exclusive goals for future generations of college students. This shift toward closing the doors to qualified students in public higher education comes at a time when the public rhetoric strongly advocates the need for a more competitive work force and the public high school population is increasingly Latino and Asian.

Most observers recognize that despite the obvious need to support public higher education today, the political and economic reality is that it is insignificant compared with other pressing state needs such as health care and public primary and secondary education. Most likely, severe cuts will require further reductions in course offerings for students and research opportunities for faculty. But before we allow the continued mutilation of academic programs by technocratic drones who have rarely entered a classroom or research laboratory, it is critical that faculty and administrators develop a strategic plan for higher education for the 21st Century.

If the goal is to be on the cutting edge of higher education, it is critical that we devise a plan that not only provides quality, but also is cost-effective. A first step would be to consolidate the state budgetary process for UC, Cal State and the community colleges. This would allow for greater coordination of programs at all levels and avoid administrative duplication. If downsizing is recommended, it should be done only after an analysis of student and state needs. Cutting expensive programs such as mechanical engineering and allowing the proliferation of large general education courses may gain an institution short-run dollars but won’t truly serve the public interest.

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Second, UC must seriously examine its commitment to educating undergraduates and streamline its graduate degrees. It has been fashionable for UC faculty to argue that they cannot do quality research with a heavier teaching load. But UC administrators would be hard pressed to prove empirically that a heavier teaching load--as it was, say, 25 years ago--resulted in lower-quality scholarship. State dollars that are used to subsidize UC faculty for research should be distributed on a competitive basis, as occurs for Cal State faculty. In addition, this should be viewed as seed money to promote and support those faculty members who can bring external dollars into the system.

Re-examining the incentive system for faculty will inevitably impact the sacred tenure system. Although the historical merits of tenure should not be discounted, the importance of this system needs to be seriously reconsidered. Should faculty members, after six years of employment, be guaranteed lifetime employment without any significant review of teaching and research other than for merit increases?

Third, the term “downsizing” has become a popular euphemism for mindlessly cutting programs and departments.

Perhaps we should shift away from autonomous campuses and look at the big picture of higher education in the state. This will require coordination across campuses and state systems. We need to begin to coordinate faculty, departments and campuses across the systems and begin to ask some questions that may at first seem blasphemous. Does UC really need four Ph.D. programs in sociology (in Berkeley, Los Angeles, Davis and Santa Barbara)?

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Finally, we need to re-examine how university regents and trustees are appointed. Higher education should not depend on the benevolence of a governor’s political appointment. We should push for either elected board members or a selection panel that will review qualified nominees who are representative of the users of the system.

It’s time to end old theologies in higher education and start anew. Do we have the vision?


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