Zócalo Public Square:
Can Two People Hold California’s Higher Education Hostage? Why the State’s Universities and Colleges Desperately Need a New Master Plan
by Daniel J.B. Mitchell |
As its official budgeteers measure it, the University of California has a
$27 billion operating budget—of which a little under $3 billion comes
from the general fund of the state. Each of those state dollars is
roughly matched by a tuition and fee dollar from students. You can argue
about the accounting. You can complain that the books should be
rearranged to show more detail. You can hold legislative hearings. You
can demonstrate at Regents meetings. You can demand more “efficiencies.”
But it’s hard to get away from the fact that most of the support for
the university doesn’t come from the state. The bulk of the budget for
UC comes from such sources as research grants, patient revenues in
university hospitals, fees for managing the U.S. Department of Energy
labs, and a variety of miscellaneous sources.
Understanding the modest ratio of state funding to the university
system’s overall budget is important. When you get down to it, the
current conflict between the university and the governor over budgets
and tuition, dramatic though it may be, deals with a small fraction of
the overall cost of running UC. The second fact to appreciate is the
budgetary multiplier effect. Apart from any indirect stimulus to the
economies near the UC campuses, the state is putting in under $3 billion
of funding into UC, and getting $27 billion in direct economic activity
out of it.
That return seems like a good deal.
So what’s the problem? Or put another way, what would the current
governor’s dad see as the problem, if he saw one at all? Would it be
that the UC budget is insufficiently transparent? Would it be that the
university is being disrupted by new technology and isn’t reacting fast
enough? Would it be that university administrators are overpaid? Would
it be that those administrators are “tone deaf,” as the Assembly Speaker
recently put it, to the politics of the state?
My guess is that former Governor Pat Brown would not see those issues
as key problems. My guess instead is that if former Governor Pat Brown
were alive today he would be both proud that folks are still referring
to his 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education as a blueprint and
disappointed that there was no effort to create a new Master Plan for
the world of 2015 and beyond. He would see the key problem as a lack of
strategy regarding public higher education in California.
What we have today—instead of a process to develop a new Master Plan—is an ad hoc
arrangement known as the “Committee of Two,” consisting of Governor
Jerry Brown and UC president Janet Napolitano, who have held
much-discussed meetings this spring. The Committee of Two may, or may
not, come up with a mutually agreeable budget solution for 2015 to 16.
They might even produce a deal that would extend a few years beyond the
2015 to 16 year.
Whether or not the Committee of Two comes up with a deal, it is
ultimately the legislature that must enact whatever the state allocates
to UC. And the legislature is not represented in the Committee of Two
and has no direct voice in it. There is no mechanism for interest groups
that have a stake in UC to play a role. Such interest groups are not
limited to the faculty, students, and staff of UC, by the way. They
include the business and labor communities that play important roles in
The Committee of Two is limited in its thinking to UC issues. In
contrast, the old Master Plan sought to look at higher education in
California more generally. It considered what is now the California
State University system and the community colleges and tried to carve
out roles for each of the three segments. With hindsight, we know that
not every element of the old Master Plan was retained. Higher education
is certainly not tuition-free, for example, as the plan envisioned. But
the Master Plan was an attempt at developing an overarching strategy and
public consensus. That is why it still hovers over all California
conversations about public higher education. It is hard to imagine—in
contrast—that 55 years from now, Californians will still be referring to
the Committee of Two.
Why do we have a short-term, non-strategic Committee of Two process
rather than a development of a new Master Plan? To be blunt, the
sequence of events that produced the Committee of Two is largely a
reflection of Jerry Brown and his UC-related hang-ups on such issues as
online courses. Traditionally, the Regents have appointed academics as
UC presidents, and governors allow them to do their job as they see fit.
But after Brown was elected in 2010, unlike his predecessors, he began
showing up at Regents meetings and offering personal observations and
For a time, particularly when the governor’s Prop 30 temporary taxes
were on the ballot, the Regents politely went along with the governor.
They flattered and stroked and humored. Eventually, however, the Regents
concluded that what they needed was another politician to head the UC
system and protect it from the meddlesome governor. In the end, they
selected a former governor, Janet Napolitano, to do the job. The
Committee of Two—one governor negotiating with another—was the ultimate
We’ll know shortly whether the Committee of Two process “worked,”
i.e., whether it produces a budget deal that convinces the Regents that
their strategy of hiring a politician to manage Brown was correct. There
will be a Regents meeting later this month and a release of the
governor’s May Revised budget proposal. But by itself, the
narrowly-focused Committee of Two can’t produce a new Master Plan. It
can’t produce a higher education strategy for California. It can’t
produce the kind of wide consensus needed to back such a strategy.
Pat Brown’s legacy today is largely seen as a major state water
project, transportation (expansion of the freeways), and a higher
education strategic plan (the Master Plan). Jerry Brown, now in his last
term, seems also to be thinking about legacy. He has a water project
(the tunnels) and a transportation project (high-speed rail). If he
wants to complete the package, he’ll need something more than his
personalized Committee of Two. To get to a new Master Plan—a legacy—he
would need to back off from personal engagement and open the process to
the legislature and key interest groups. And he would need to widen the
agenda to encompass all three segments of California higher education.
Producing a new Master Plan will take time and political skill. The
clock is ticking.
Daniel J.B. Mitchell is professor emeritus at the UCLA
Anderson School of Management and the Luskin School of Public Affairs.
He co-teaches a course at UCLA each winter on California Policy Issues
with Michael Dukakis.