Why not abolish student fees at the University of California? And in exchange, how about requiring graduates to pay the university a percentage of their income for a while after college?
That may sound outlandish at a time when UC is substantially hiking student fees and the state budget crisis has left the 10-campus system strapped for cash. But that's precisely why UC Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich raised the idea to a commission trying to chart the university's course into the future.
"We've never been here before, not only the university but the state of California," Reich, a former U.S. Labor Secretary, said in an interview. "So, many ideas that would never before see the light of day are now being examined seriously."
It remains to be seen how seriously UC leaders will examine Reich's proposal, under which more highly paid alumni would, in effect, subsidize others. But it is among the far-reaching, even radical ideas receiving at least a hearing from UC's Commission on the Future, a panel that is studying ways to maintain the university's excellence yet make it more efficient and affordable in an era of shrinking state revenue.
UC Board of Regents Chairman Russell Gould established the 26-member panel last summer and says it is open to all constructive proposals. He serves as its co-chairman, along with UC President Mark G. Yudof.
"We need to look at how we do business and see if we need to reform how we do things. Can we work smarter? You can't just sit pat with the kind of financial reductions we've endured," said Gould, a banking executive and former state finance director. "If we can show that we are being smart about every dime we get from Sacramento, I think it helps our case."
Among the ideas under discussion: Should UC increase its use of online classes? Could bachelor's degrees be earned in three years? Should campuses eliminate small departments that are duplicated elsewhere? Enroll more out-of-state students to raise revenue? Boost research ties with private industry?
But critics say the commission, which comprises mainly regents and top UC administrators, is unlikely to recommend significant changes. And some wonder whether the process is more theatrical than real, aimed at placating legislators and the public, who are angry about student fees and high salaries for UC executives.
What's really needed is a much broader look at California's public colleges and universities and the 50-year-old master plan that guides them, said William G. Tierney, director of USC's Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis. "Significant structural reform is unlikely to come through a group that is composed of chancellors, students and regents," he said.
Since its formation in July, the commission has held several public meetings and visited campuses, but is just now getting down to a detailed study of the issues. A public forum that was planned for Southern California in January was canceled, but may be rescheduled in the spring when solid proposals are on the table, officials said.
The commission also has five working groups that are researching UC's future size and shape; changes in education and curriculum; funding strategies; ways to ensure student access and affordability; and reforms in research policies.
About 80 people, mainly UC faculty, along with some students and outside experts on finance and education, serve with regents and campus chancellors on those subcommittees. They are meeting behind closed doors, and UC attorneys, citing exemptions to public access for UC advisory groups that don't include a quorum of regents, have refused to allow reporters to attend.
UC Santa Barbara junior Garth Johnson, who serves on one subcommittee, said he sometimes worries that real change is too difficult to achieve. Still, he has been impressed by the discussions' seriousness and breadth. "Every conceivable angle and supposition has been brought to the table," Johnson said.
Jelger Kalmijn, president of the systemwide University Professional and Technical Employees union, complained that labor has only one representative on the commission, Art Pulaski, a leader of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.
Kalmijn, a UC San Diego research associate, also said he fears the commission will recommend that UC continue to move toward higher student fees and more private industry links that "could really corrupt the academic institution."
But several participants defended the work of the commission and its subgroups.
UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal, co-chairman of the group examining the best "size and shape" for UC in the years to come, said he and other leaders of the effort have not predetermined its recommendations.
"I'm a busy guy and I wouldn't be doing this if it was just for show," Blumenthal said. He said he expected the commission to generate good ideas but also said it would not be "the great savior of the university."
By the end of next month, the groups are scheduled to deliver their first proposals to the commission, which will then make recommendations to the regents. The full regents board and faculty Senate, which have final say, are expected to start voting on the ideas by summer.
So far, the commission has spent about $60,800 of the $100,000 donated by four foundations, mainly for travel and computer costs, officials said. UC campuses have paid some additional expenses.
A UC spokesman said it was too soon to estimate final costs.