Opinion: Why this UC crisis feels different — and a lot more perilous

MARCH 10, 2017 CA BERKELEY, CA Students play and study around the campus of the University of California at Berkeley.
Students walk on the UC Berkeley campus in 2017.
(David Butow / For The Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, May 29, 2021. Starting on a wildly positive note, my children just finished a full year of Zoom school and will almost certainly be back in a classroom next August — hooray! Congratulations to all the other public school parents who are now finishing this digital slog. Let’s continue with education and take a look back at the week in Opinion.

Oh look, another political flap over the University of California system. These happen, as anyone who knows anything about California understands, but this one is profoundly different. The Times Editorial Board explains why here; as a UC Berkeley Golden Bear, I’ll add some context.

California’s public universities, especially the UC campuses, have existed perilously at the center of political storms since 1960s, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan presided over the firing of UC President Clark Kerr, the legendary administrator and professor who established the tiered system of higher education that persists to this day. Many of those controversies — over free speech, affirmative action, racial justice and more — were reliably important to the universities but never got at the core of what UC is: a world-class university system set up for the benefit of Californians, in terms of both research that pays dividends for all, and educating the state’s highest-performing students at no (at least at first) or low cost.

This is where today’s political dust-up differs: UC now admits a higher proportion of premium-paying nonresident students, whose $42,000 annual tuition helps fund financial aid for California students paying far more than past graduates because of steadily eroding support from taxpayers.


This is, understandably, upsetting to California legislators. They are no doubt hearing from constituents with 4.5 GPAs who were still rejected by their top-choice UC schools thanks to obscenely low acceptance rates — such as roughly 25% at UC Irvine. In fact, this year, about 150,000 California high school applicants failed to get accepted as a freshman to any UC campus, raising the question of whether the system in its current form can fulfill its mandate to educate California’s top 12.5% of graduating high school seniors.

This gets at the fundamental tension at UC, which has always existed but is particularly acute now: Can it remain both a globally revered research institution and a public university system that serves Californians? The very state government that has over the years shifted the funding burden from primarily taxpayers to students and donors is now demanding that UC redouble its commitment to educating Californians. The editorial board’s solution is for the state to establish another UC campus to meet demand; on our letters page, one reader suggested charging out-of-state students an ever larger tuition premium.

I don’t have anything close to an answer, but I find it sadly fitting that UC’s current existential crisis is over the essential university function established by Clark Kerr, who was at the center of arguably UC’s first existential crisis.

Is Israel being criminalized? Last week’s Opinion newsletter asked readers to look at the raw data of the latest Israeli-Palestinian fighting and recognize that one side bore a disproportionate share of the suffering. Writing on our op-ed page, Yossi Klein Halevi says it’s much more complicated: “By focusing on Israeli power, critics ignore Israeli vulnerability. Israel’s paradox is that it is at once the regional power and the regional loner. Hemmed in by terror enclaves to our north and south, Israelis are acutely aware of the fragility of our borders and the enormous effort required to sustain our ability to protect ourselves.” L.A. Times

We all must condemn the surge in antisemitic attacks in the U.S. The fighting between Hamas and Israel has had a sadly predictable side effect — a rise in anti-Jewish hate incidents that the editorial board says reminds us of the fact that antisemitism “courses through world cultures, and world history, with a distressing persistence, like a virus we can’t vanquish.” On our letters page, a reader wonders if declining U.S. support for Israel is reflective of historical amnesia about the Holocaust.

It doesn’t look like Eric Garcetti is listening to us. Previously, amid speculation that the Los Angeles mayor was about to be nominated as U.S. ambassador to India, the editorial board pleaded with him not to leave City Hall in the lurch on COVID-19, homelessness and other crises. Now, multiple reports suggest he will soon be jetting off to New Delhi, and a person involved in the vetting process told The Times that Garcetti is likely to get the nod. Los Angeles Magazine says many groups in L.A. will be cheering the mayor’s departure, “but from a political and leadership standpoint, this will be brutal for the city.”

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That pesky 710 Freeway project just won’t die. The notoriously unfinished artery connecting the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the transcontinental Interstate 10 Freeway has been the subject of multiple plans for expansion and extension, all of which have been fiercely opposed by local residents but not completely abandoned by Metro. The editorial board wants Metro to give up: “We need transportation leaders to come up with new ways to improve mobility that address climate change and environmental justice as well. We have to stop wasting time and money on zombie freeway projects.” L.A. Times

Another victim of George Floyd’s murder: the right to protest. Floyd’s death almost exactly one year ago prompted waves of protests around the country — and in response to that, a wave of anti-free speech legislation in Republican-governed states. The editorial board has a warning: “This is dangerous ground, no matter where on the political spectrum you may stand. Democracy is predicated on the free exchange of ideas and the ability of people to openly express support, opposition or even ambivalence regarding government actions.” L.A. Times

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