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UC Isn’t in the Widget Business : ‘Downsizing’ that starves education while plumping up bureaucrats is a recipe for disaster.

<i> Ruth Rosen is a professor of history at UC Davis</i>

What will it take for the people of California to realize that their once-premier public university is being systematically dismantled?

Many parents imagine that their children will someday enjoy an inexpensive but superior education at the University of California. They’re wrong. If they allow the Board of Regents to squander valuable resources and if they refuse to be taxed for higher public education, by the time their children graduate from high school, UC will be a “downsized” institution, stripped of its former reputation, unable to accept all qualified students, incapable of offering the quality education of past generations.

In another display of conspicuous cynicism, UC President Jack Peltason promised “golden parachute” retirement bonuses to nine top UC executives during a closed video teleconference with his chancellors. A confidential source gave the verbatim account to the San Francisco Examiner, providing a rare glimpse into the inner world of UC politics. During the meeting, Peltason worries how it will look when the public learns that he will give each executive a bonus of a year’s salary--at an average of $189,000--upon their leaving their present positions. Peltason should worry. Sooner or later the public is going to rebel against policies that feed administrators and starve students and faculty. In January, the regents authorized--in closed session, of course--a series of salary increases for 60 administrators throughout the system. Meanwhile, they awarded faculty a 3.5% pay cut and Peltason called on students to “share the pain” through higher fees (a $620-hike spread over three years).

The regents have it backward: The university does not exist to serve its administrators. Yet it is the bloated bureaucracy that siphons off valuable resources from the students and faculty who constitute the true core of a university. The salaries of the administrators who received “equity adjustments” were already high: $125,000 is more than twice what most full professors at UC earn.

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Nor is a university like a corporation; it can’t downsize, streamline its production and retain its former reputation. (In fact, if it were a corporation, a savvy CEO would have fired half of UC’s management yesterday). A public university is a nonprofit institution. It doesn’t produce widgets; it engages in the labor-intensive enterprise of educating thousands of young people.

Three cost-cutting, voluntary early retirement programs have devastated vast portions of the university. Offered irresistible golden handshakes, prestigious faculty have left, many to other universities. Because of the lack of funds, only a few are called back for part-time teaching. The result: Fewer senior faculty train graduate students, fewer courses are offered to undergraduates. The remaining professors are overwhelmed and overworked. Meanwhile, elite universities across the nation dangle offers before UC’s demoralized faculty, aware that their salaries lag 7.5% behind comparable institutions.

For current students, the university is often a nightmare. Fewer courses, taught by an overburdened faculty, result in even less contact with professors. With fewer graduate-student assistants, courses are capped or scrapped. Students roam the campus, in search of courses that will complete their major.

For prospective students, the future looks grim. With enrollments cut and graduate admissions reduced, we are turning away students who once easily qualified for admission to the University of California.

For the business community, the trashing of the public university must be viewed as a disaster. Who, after all, has trained the skilled work force, managers and professionals that made the California dream possible? If the state is ever to rebound from the recession, it needs an expanded, not a shrunken, university.

For the state of California, the dismantling of a great public university is not only a heinous crime but a violation of the social contract that made public education available to all qualified Californians. Public universities in California have long given the children of poor, minority or immigrant families an opportunity for upward mobility. In the last 20 years, those expectations have only intensified; blocked mobility is a recipe for class strife and race riots.

If sacrifice is needed, then let it be shared all around. An outcry of indignation greeted former President David Gardner’s outrageous retirement package. Once again, the regents--and now Gardner’s successor--have stuffed the pockets of administrators while shrinking the future of our youth. Californians must not let their actions go unanswered.


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