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Michael Hiltzik: The privatization of UC

December 9, 2009 |  9:49 pm

Attacking the University of California is a perennial political sport -- who can forget that Ronald Reagan's heckling of Berkeley students was as important in launching his conservative political career as was the support of General Electric Co.?

But the system today faces greater peril than at any time since Gov. Pat Brown and UC President Clark Kerr joined to craft the state's higher-education master plan in 1960. Changing demographics, budget-cutting fervor and a certain tendency to shoot itself in the foot have combined to undermine UC's traditional constituency. The 32% hike in tuition approved by the regents last month is a sign that California's commitment to its public university, which contributed beyond measure to the state's prosperity over the decades, is on the brink. 

My column for Thursday examines the possible alternatives to continued state government support. There aren't any good ones. UC can't be made into the equivalent of a private university without depriving the state of a unique treasure. But the prospects for getting this message across to our lawmakers aren't good.

The column starts below.

University of California President Mark G. Yudof went to Sacramento this week in another valiant effort to convince legislators that they’re playing with fire when they shortchange the state’s higher-education system.

In the course of his presentation, he gingerly mentioned the P-word.

The state university, he told them, is a statewide boon, adding: “We do not want to partially privatize it through raising fees.”

“Privatization” is a crowd-pleasing nostrum for public officials seeking to shed the budgetary cost of programs and services that they nevertheless know to be a public responsibility. It has a cheap but bright surface allure, like a coat of whitewash.

The idea, among critics of UC as well as those of other public universities, is that the cut-rate tuition of these systems has long been too much of a bargain for their direct beneficiaries (the students) and too expensive for the state’s taxpayers. So why not cut the discount?

An important subtext is that the public systems have been too long insulated from the real world, with inflated staffs and salaries. It wouldn’t kill them to become more subject to market forces, the argument goes.

Read the rest of the column.