Image from the Occupy Cal protests in November, from Josh Rotsten Photography.
I'm perched anxiously at my desk, fingers arched at the keyboard, cursor poised over the refresh button. The clock reads 3:59PM -- just one more minute. And then" 4:00. I'm frantically clicking buttons, entering the lengthy list of 5-digit numbers printed on the Post-It on my desk. And then, it's over.
4:03. I exhale and examine the damage. In the three minutes I spent adding my classes for next semester at University of California, Berkeley, I've managed to secure a seat in just one class" And I'm waitlisted for the rest. I'm numbers 38 and 41 for my major prerequisites -- the classes I have to get into if I have any hope of declaring my major the following semester. I curse aloud, but I know I'm not alone. I can practically hear the collective chorus of sighs and grunts of aggravation of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of students coming to the same realization at this very moment across campus. I'm frustrated that, while I was incredibly lucky this semester to get a decent online enrollment appointment date ahead of many of my friends, I still couldn't manage to catch a break.
There are similar stories, ranging from slightly annoying to devastating in severity. The feeling is familiar and stress-inducing: having to spend the first 3 weeks of class on a waitlist, not knowing if you'll ever get to take an exam on the material that you're learning from the textbook you just spent $115 on; sitting on the floor in your over-enrolled lab section because they couldn't afford to hire another Graduate Student Instructor; being forced to take obscure classes irrelevant to your major, like my Business major roommate who took Archaeology and Oceanography last semester because the upper division classes she needed were competitive enough without allowing sophomores to enroll; adding on a ninth semester because you couldn't graduate on time because your major was so impacted. Stories like these are commonplace. And with the current state of funding for public higher education, these tales are steadily becoming more fact than fiction.
Despite this chaos, one thing becomes clear -- America has thrown public higher education under the bus. And I'm experiencing the setbacks of divestment firsthand. As a student of the University of California system, I'll examine this school system as just one microcosm of this national problem.
Recent California state budget cuts in the area of public higher education have significantly damaged the state's universities and colleges.
Here's a quick history lesson for you: Back in 1960, former CA Gov. Pat Brown (father of CA's current governor, Jerry Brown) famously presided over the creation of the California Master Plan for Higher Education. The Master Plan organized the CA community college, Cal State and UC systems with the intention of raising the standard of educational quality in California by emphasizing the ideals of accessibility, affordability and, of course, excellence.
But that high standard is slipping. Despite current Gov. Jerry Brown's familial legacy of striving to raise the bar of California higher education, as much as $750 million dollars were slashed from the UC budget in the 2011-2012 fiscal year alone under Gov. Brown's leadership. As a result of such divestment, this year was the first time that California students and their families paid more than the state for their supposedly public higher education ($2.97 billion compared to $2.37 billion, respectively).
The question is: How can we expect our universities and colleges to churn out the future leaders necessary to run our country or grow our industries when we are funding fewer and fewer resources to produce them? If GSI's and TA's are sub-par, if a student's learning is disrupted because they're sitting on the floor, if budget cuts mean higher tuition and fewer possibilities for capable, low-income students, or if classes are being flat out cancelled from lack of funding" Then we have a problem.
So how do we proceed?
UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau recently urged Sacramento leadership to engage with student representatives and campus leaders in a forum to debate the future of higher education and stop cutbacks. Protests about divestment and subsequent fee hikes are cropping up at universities all over the state. I personally traveled to the Capitol last semester with students from UC Berkeley and UC Davis----while students from UCLA and other countless other universities, state colleges and community colleges clogged the phone lines----to lobby CA State Congressmen to not accept any budget with further cuts to education. When I knocked on the door of Assembly Education Chair Marty Block's office and gave our usual spiel----adrenaline rushing at the prospect of an audience actually capable of change----pleading for the legislature to defend UC funding, what was his staff's response? As an aide said, "We're with you one hundred percent, and we promise the Education Committee is doing everything it can in the assembly." But then why does it seem Block's staff is the minority? Where are the others? Why aren't we seeing results?
As Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently said at the OccupyCal protest on the UC Berkeley campus, "there are people out there who say we cannot afford education any longer" But how can that be true if we are now richer than we have ever been before?" His words were met with a deafening roar of cheering, booing, snapping and applauding, as students seemed to cry out, "Yes! Why? Why is education being left in the dust? Why are you sacrificing our futures?"
And it's not just the UC system. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, "the drop in state funds for the top 101 public research universities in the United States from 2002 to 2010 was 10 percent, with nearly three-quarters of the universities losing some state support." It's infectious; it's spreading all across the nation; it needs a cure.
Cuts have been fought with fundraising, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that private donations are a sustainable solution. UC Berkeley's associate vice chancellor for university relations, David Blinder, said that, while Cal successfully raised $283.35 million in donations in 2011 alone, this achievement is still inherently problematic. "We are a state university" but at this point, the figure is that just over 10 percent of our budget is coming from the state."
And he's right. State schools cannot get by without state support. We need to stop settling for budgets that continue to harm our public universities. We can't let even one more budget cut happen, because that cut will continue to snowball until it becomes an avalanche. And that avalanche will completely cripple our education systems and leave our college students robbed of the high caliber educations their parents received and our California politicians promised.