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The Higher Ed Protests in California January 18, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, university.

I suspect most readers of this blog have seen or heard about the protests in California staged by students at the Berkley, Davis, and other campuses. As a member of a state that that had the worst single-year cut in its support of higher education until California whacked its system, I was quite happy to see some folks complaining about it in a way that got real press. Of course, this took more than it should have: they shut down buildings, there were some mass arrests. I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt (but I’m not sure). Things have been amazingly silent up here in Washington. Students have staged small protests, but as far as I can tell no one in the papers noticed.

I’m getting most of my information about California from a recent New Yorker article, A Letter From California, which tries to give an inside look at what has been going on there. I don’t like the article too much – it spends most of its time concentrating on one woman, only to suddenly decide at the end that perhaps she isn’t the real story. However, it does a good job at explaining many of the moving parts. Short conversations with some of my friends in California seem to back this version of events. I also was attending a workshop in UC Davis, arriving the day after students took over a building and the police brought in helicopters to flush them out.

The students have (as far as I can tell) two targets: high administration salaries and tuition hikes. The second one they should definitely be mad at. Ca is raising their cost of in-state tuition by 32% in one year! One year! UW is raising it 14% two years in a row – so 28% – almost the same as Ca, just spread over two years. Ouch! That said, both institutions are doing their best to put financial aid in place to help students who need it pay for the increases, and compared to private schools these two public, state, institutions are still an good bargain. It is important to keep in mind that in Ca the university system has direct control over the tuition and in Washington while the legislature has direct control, UW doesn’t have to raise the fees even if the legislature gives them permission – so it seems logical that university administrations be a target over the anger in tuition increases.

Second: the administration. I’ve seen the president of the Ca system, Yudof, and the president of the UW system, Emmert, have both been targets of their respective school student’s anger. And, it would seem, main targets in some cases.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I can see why they are easy targets. They make boat-loads of money. In some respects, they are a symbol of the general corporate drift of public universities – and get paid to match (i.e. they get paid a lot). And cutting their salaries and those of the top administrators down would certainly free up some cash.

But in the grand scale of things – it won’t free up that much cash. For example, the budget that was put together for UW last year by the state had our funding dropping by 26%. That is close to a 70 million cut in UW’s yearly budget. If you slashed all the administrators salaries to be mine, I suspect you’d save about 2 million per year. Those salaries aren’t the main problem!

The problem is the what the state! Higher education is not a priority. In California they spend more on prisons than they do on higher education! That doesn’t seem right – invest in the future, not the past! In Washington higher education is one of the few expenses that isn’t required by some law – so it is also something that gets cut often:

emmert_budget[1]That red line on the right hand side is the funding per full time student (adjusted for 2009 dollars) from 1990 until the present. While this last drop was steep – this has been going on a long time. Public universities all over the USA have been seeing similar trends – this is not unique to California or Washington – it is just particularly bad here.

And, I think, that is where most of the anger of the students should be directed. The president of UW, Emmert, has decided that the state really doesn’t care any more – and that red curve will never return to its former level – so it is time to stop acting like it will and move on and negotiate a new relationship with the state. Still a public university, perhaps, but not in the same way. No matter what there will always be a better deal for in-state students – but that only works to the level that the state continues to kick in some cash. I suspect he is right – and it is too bad.

While the anger might sometimes be misdirected (and it sounds like the Ca administration made some pretty serious missteps), I do hope that in the future most students target legislators and other government officials. Who knows, perhaps a constitutional amendment is the answer?



1. Gordon Watts - January 20, 2010

I discovered this article: http://www.tri-cityherald.com/kennewick_pasco_richland/story/869354.html – at least one guy gets it (see comments about firing the 6 top paid people and save 3 million… which is tiny compared to the hole we actually have to solve in the funding right now!!!

2. Charlie - January 21, 2010

Also, note that 1.14^2 = 1.30, so the aggregate tuition increase is somewhat larger than 28% at UW.

3. gordonwatts - January 21, 2010

Charlie – I thought it was supposed to be the same 14% each year, and it was an individual thing – and the $$ amount was supposed to be the same (i.e. they took what they needed, divided it in half, and spread it over two years). But this is a subtle thing that most people won’t get right, I bet. I’d always assumed the math was right – but you could be right, and it could be worse!

4. Gordon Wayne Watts - January 29, 2010

Thank you for telling us about the Tri-City Hearald article — As a show of good will, Dr. Watts, I gave you credit in the Tri-City Herald blog for having shown me a link to their article:


AND, while disagreeing with your conclusions, I gave you great positive feedback –see e.g., the comments section where I advertise a link to your article here.

Gordon Wayne Watts

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