A plan to save public education by abandoning it

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Understandable as the University of California’s precarious budget situation is, raising tuition to the level of private universities for specific programs is unacceptable.

We see problems with both the process and the substance of the drastic proposal to essentially privatize the UCLA Anderson School of Management and charge $50,000 for in-state tuition, as reported on Sept. 9 by The Times.

On the process side, we expect administrators to involve students in the decisions that shape students’ lives, especially a decision of this magnitude. Instead, administrators have met behind closed doors and failed to formally include students. Beginning most notably last November, people throughout the state have mobilized to protest these types of top-down proposals, which have been implemented at the expense of students and the public. Jerry Trapnell of the Assn. to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business supports Anderson’s move to break free from UCLA as a way to avoid being “heavily compromised” by the “bureaucracy” of the larger institution. We disagree with his premise. The UC system should be a democratic space, and students should have input, even if that means key decisions are arrived at in a matter of months rather than weeks.

The proposal itself, already touted as a potential model for other programs, is even more disturbing. Anderson Dean Judy Olian describes her plan as “win-win” because it would redirect public funds to departments such as English and math that don’t have the kind of private fundraising prowess Anderson does. There is an appeal to the underlying logic: Why should taxpayers subsidize the education of these wealthy professionals or those who it’s assumed will strike it rich after graduation? Stereotypes of rich professionals should not guide university policy toward students, many of whom are more likely to be seen consuming ramen noodles and Fanta than steak and martinis.

This kind of thinking ignores those students pursuing professional school degrees as a path to public service. The president of our country is a former public interest attorney, and many important government and nonprofit posts demand instruction from business, medical or law schools. Such students are not exceptions to the rule; they make up the heart of our universities. UC administrators should not have to be reminded that pursuit of idealistic but low-paying work represents the fulfillment of UC’s stated mission of teaching, research and public service.

Sadly, some of our classmates include California residents who were educated entirely within the UC system and have debt levels well over $150,000 between undergraduate and professional schools. Administrators insist that they want to keep UC affordable for low-income California residents, but we are not convinced. Financial aid for professional students comes predominately in the form of loans rather than grants, and the Anderson’s proposed in-state discount is a mere 10% off a sticker price of $55,000 a year for tuition, not including books, room and board.

Moreover, we find it troubling that administrators seem to be repackaging ideas that have already been rejected, apparently hoping that students will fail to notice. In March, the UC Board of Regents rejected a proposal that would have made it easier to set professional school fees at rates similar to private universities; its policy instead requires tuition to be no higher than comparable public schools. The Anderson proposal seems like a backdoor plan to circumvent UC policy that could set a dangerous precedent of restructuring other professional programs. The Anderson plan is analogous to killing a mosquito with a sledgehammer. The state decreased funding to UC by about $630 million last year, which works out to a cut of about $3,200 a student. Olian’s proposal is wildly disproportionate, increasing tuition by $10,000 a student.

Californians cannot accept that UC must abandon public education to save it, nor can we allow the Anderson School to take the program and buildings that have been built with public tax dollars and student tuition and effectively deny access to all but the rich. The Anderson privatization plan abandons the public mission of UC and will hurt students.

If UC administrators believe wealthy professionals should subsidize education, they should call for new taxes on the rich. If they insist on treating professional school students as cash cows, or if they believe that public education is too cumbersome to save, it is time for them to change course and recommit to acting as stewards of one of the best public universities in the world.

Jason Ball is communications director for the UCLA Graduate Students Assn. and a doctoral student in political science. Law student Lincoln Ellis is the association’s president.