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declining education levels in the state? Or
are low completion rates to blame? Each
of the suppositions has somemerit—and
several of themmight be true. But to
higher education insiders, perhaps the
most troubling trend of all is the fact
that so few have even noticed, let alone
responded to, California’s slide. Indeed, in
the years that California would have been
addressing the crisis, the state’s higher
education establishment appeared to be
For nearly 50 years, California’s higher
education systemhad been defined by
the state’s vauntedMaster Plan and its
tripartite system.The plan’s bold vision of
access and quality safeguarded a systemof
selective research universities and provided
baccalaureate education through the
less-selective California State University
system, while simultaneously ensuring
broad access to higher education through a
far-flung network of community colleges.
For decades, theMaster Plan had been credited for the state’s
superior education level and strong public research universities.
But by early 2008, even before the extent of the budget deficit
was known, there were visible signs of strain. InterimCEOs
were leading two of the systems after the abrupt resignations
of incumbents the year before: At the ten-campus University
of California, Robert Dynes retained the president’s title, but
had been effectively pushed aside after a series of executive
compensation scandals.The university’s operations were
officially in the hands of the provost, but some insiders alleged
that a “shadow government” of the university’s regents was really
in charge.
While UCwas trying to address the effects of ten years of
bureaucratic accretion—the president’s office staff had grown by
more than 25 percent over that period—the community colleges
were facing the opposite problem.The systemoffice had been
forced to cut its Sacramento staff by 25 percent over the same
period, to the point that it employed 130 full-time individuals—
fewer than the UC president’s office information technology
staff alone. When ChancellorMarshall Drummond vacated his
job at the helmof the 109-campus community college system
in the summer of 2007 to return to his prior post with Los
Angeles’ community college district, hemade it clear that the
minimal staff and lack of authoritymade the job hard to bear.
A salary under $200,000—less thanmany district chancellors—
apparently didn’t help.
While the challenges in the two systems complicated
the search for strong leaders, the 23-campus California State
University retained stable central leadership in Charlie Reed,
an aggressive and policy-savvy leader with increasing clout in
Sacramento after ten years on the job. Yet his straight-talking
ways had earned him some enemies, especially among his own
faculty and within the community college ranks, where he had
become something of a lightning rod.
But other leadership was scarce. CPEC, never a powerful
coordinating body, had dwindled froma staffing level of 52 in the
early 1990s to just 22 by 2007. Only sporadically had a series of
education secretaries appointed by Schwarzenegger even hired a
higher education specialist. In the legislature, leadership was also
a problem: Committee service in a sector dominated by public
institutions unable tomake political contributions was attractive
only to those with the purest of motives, noted Christopher
Cabaldon, an education lobbyist and former aide in the state
assembly and the community college system. Even for those
dedicated to policy, higher educationwas a challenge, because
of the dominance of three independent segments, especially the
University of California, which often touted its “constitutional
In the legislature, the primary remaining stalwart for higher
education, Democratic Senator Jack Scott, was entering his final
year in office, with the ranks of lawmakers devoted to improving
higher education having beenwinnowed by a 1990 term limit
law. “Where’s GaryHart and Al Alquist and JohnVasconcellos
and BeckyMorgan?” asked former Cal State Chancellor Barry
Munitz, now a professor at Cal State Los Angeles, referring to
some of the “legislative lions” who had championed higher
education issues in previous eras. “There are toomany people
confused about with whom to even speak to get something done
at the state level,” saidMunitz, who now heads the state’s P–16
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had proclaimed 2008
the “year of education.” But whether that year would include
postsecondary education remained a topic of frequent
speculation among higher ed insiders even before the budget
projections cast a pall on the whole endeavor. It was not at all
clear what comprehensive statewide agenda for higher education
could emerge, since no serious statewide policy discussion had
“We have seen state policymaking in the last decade continue
to go frompillar to post based solely on short-termpolitical
pressures and howmany dollars are in the state treasury,” noted
SteveWeiner, a retired higher education official who has held
leadership positions at UC, the community colleges, as well as
theWesternAssociation of Schools and Colleges. “As far as I can
tell, the leadership of the state of California is completely asleep at
the switch, when it comes to education, and particularly higher
Weiner and other higher education observers have puzzled
over why there has been so little appetite for addressing a crisis
long in themaking, visible to analysts for at least a decade.
Instead of focusing on the pressing need tomaintain and increase
education levels, higher education policy discussions have been
consumed with narrower issues: the unraveling of affirmative
action at UC in the late 1990s, a series of fee increases that
shocked students beginning in 2003, and controversies related to
executive pay at UC and Cal State, to name a few.
Each of these concerns is a sign of the state’s changing
demographics, and also of its declining commitment to higher
education, a decline that is at odds with the increasing necessity
of postsecondary education to sustain both individuals and
states. But the state’s biggest challenges have not been the focus of
concerted attention, let alone a state-level policy response.
“For a state that is facing some serious issues, relatively little
has changed,” saidDavid Longanecker, director ofWICHE. “In
themid-1990s, the state was projected to face a huge tidal wave
“California’s economic future, its cultural
and community future, is tied to how well-
educated its citizens are going to be,”
says Charles Reed, chancellor of the 23-
campus California State University system.