Saturday, February 12, 2011

Budget Matters (Part I)

By Michael Meranze

The pilgrimage of President Yudof and Chancellors Reed and Scott to Sacramento was notable for a number of reasons. First, while they were there for an Assembly hearing they chose to present a united front at their press conference. Instead of the usual arms length distance between the sectors, the three administrators made clear that California’s higher education future was at systematic risk. They insisted that California was at a crossroads: the proposed budget cuts building on poor public policy going back decades. Yudof and Reed, for example, both made the case that CSU and UC were effectively being given budgets equivalent to the late 1990s while the size of their student bodies had increased dramatically. Scott and Reed were more militant than was Yudof but none of them tried to deny the dismal character of the present. They each insisted that unless funding changed, the systems would shrink and increasing numbers of Californians would be shut out of higher education. Indeed, that closing off of opportunity has already begun.

Implicit in all of their comments was the reality that President Yudof’s proposed “hybrid university” could not succeed. Understandably enough, Yudof did not say this fact outright. But it hovered over his presentation all the same. In both his press conference and in his statement to the Committee he pulled down the pillars of his own conception. First, he recognized that declining state support for public higher education was not a fact of nature but a conscious, and reversible, policy decision. Second he acknowledged that neither student tuition nor fund-raising could sustain the University. Third, there was his remarkable statement to the Committee that UC loses “money on virtually every research contract that we enter into.” (Hearing at about 49. minutes in). Yudof thereby joined with Reed and Scott in emphasizing the argument that UC, CSU, and the CC could not fulfill their legal mandates without firm and growing public funding.

The problem facing Reed, Scott, and Yudof however is that—having had public funding decline for decades, something the UC Regents, at least, have been complicit in—they are now confronting a budget where they have little or no political leverage. As damaging as Brown’s budget is for Higher Education its real horrors lie elsewhere. While Brown has placed great emphasis on his proposed “realignment” strategy whereby more responsibility and revenue will be shifted to the counties, the most dramatic pain will be imposed on those who still depend on the state. Over 50% of Brown’s proposed spending reductions target health and human services. Children and the elderly, the sick and the poor will bear the major pain of these budget cuts.

Nor is Brown doing anything to challenge the basic inequities in the ways that government is funded or intervenes in the economy and society. Brown has proclaimed that his proposed budget provides a balance approach to revenue and spending. But we should be clear what that means. Brown is not proposing any new revenue sources. His revenue solutions are to continue already existing but temporary taxes. (4) There is no discussion of an oil extraction tax, or any attempt to take back some of the recent giveaways to corporations. Indeed, he is allowing the Republicans to cast an extension of already existing taxes as a tax increase.

There is no discussion of making the tax system itself fairer. One often forgotten reality is that in California, despite the formal progressivity of the income tax, poorer Californians pay a larger percentage of their income than do the wealthy. (CBP,33)  Brown is not trying to change that inequity or to push corporations to pay more. His strategy on taxes appears to be to hold the revenue streams constant until a more sustained economic recovery occurs. Of course that presumes that it will.

There are numerous political, economic, and social reasons to be skeptical of Brown’s budget strategies. And I hope to address some of these in a forthcoming post.

But a second important theme emerged from the hearings and press conference. Both Reed and Yudof made clear that their approach to this year’s cuts was different than the one they imposed two summers ago. First, assuming that Brown’s tax extension passes in June, they indicated that they would not ask for tuition raises at this point. Second, they made clear that they did not see the cuts being implemented at the system-wide system. Whereas the crisis of 2009 was largely handled through furloughs, fee increases, and pressures on union negotiations, Reed and Yudof insisted that now the cuts would be determined and implemented at the level of the campuses. At UC this process will overlap with an ongoing debate within the Senate and administrations about a reformulated system for the distribution of revenues to the campuses.

Exactly how this process will take place is extremely unclear. Although both administrators assured the legislature that there will be an open discussion and decision-making process, the calendar is very compressed. Yudof has asked each campus for a plan by the end of February so that he can present his plan to the March Regents meeting. Reed seemed to be moving along a similar schedule (with campus admission numbers promised almost immediately). Both made clear that programs and services were potentially on the cutting block.

While it may seem quixotic these plans mean that faculty and staff need to be vigilant and active in responding to proposals on their campuses. Staff members, as always, are most vulnerable to ill-thought out strategies. UC Berkeley’s administration will whine that it is being asked to take a proportional cut along with the other campuses but wastes millions paying Bain to accomplish little but staff demoralization and an apparent lessening of effectiveness. But hopefully, staff unions and organizations will push to get a greater say in how changes are implemented. The CSU faculty also has a system-wide union (the California Faculty Association) which is pushing to have a say in the way that cuts on their campuses will be approached. I hope that CSU faculty and staff will keep us apprised of their efforts and let us know if we can be of any help.

The UC Faculty is in a different situation. Despite the rhetoric of shared governance our actual leverage over these matters has been quite limited. Although the system-wide Senate effectively improved the pension “reforms” traditionally it has been too far removed from local faculty. Faculty themselves are split by discipline, interest, generation, and campus. We lack a system-wide voice that is meaningfully independent from UCOP.

In the immediate moment faculty who are part of the Senate need to be sure to push for greater openness and input in the process; those who are not in the Senate (or other college and university committees) need to push those who are. After all, the responses to the cuts are going to be taking place in evaluating programs and departments—faculties, like staff, have deep interests in these. And in so far as instructional decisions are involved faculty have a claim to authority over them.

In the longer term we need to seek to invigorate those levers that we have and to create new ones where necessary. At the very least I think that people need to become more active within the Senate as a way of achieving greater transparency and pushing both Senate leaders and the administration to open up decision making.

But we also need a larger discussion. We have had a great many concrete suggestions for responding to the budget problems and debates over tactics in the here and now. We have had less discussion about building or engaging with institutions. Such an effort would entail some shift of attention from departments to campuses and the university as a whole. But given the long-term pressures it is necessary. Do we think that the Senate can be transformed sufficiently? Can we, in fact, get greater involvement in, and mobilization of the Senate? Is there some way to better link committed faculty across campuses? Campaigns? Unions? Faculty Associations?

To be sure, these decisions must take into the wider context of the state and national budgets. But the process within the university has started. We can wait no longer.

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