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Page 7 of 11

Findings from Interviews, July and August 1998

As noted earlier, in July and August of this year I had the opportunity to talk at length with more than 30 leaders from higher education and state government about the reports, and how they assess progress toward the issues raised therein. (Individuals interviewed are listed in the appendix.) The interviews were confidential, and in what follows I do not quote anyone directly, or attribute views to particular people, other than views publicly expressed elsewhere. The interviews provided a unique window into the thinking of those who will be influential in implementing recommendations from the reports, if that is to happen.

Let me first comment on the radically different tone of the discussions this year, compared with a similar round of interviews I conducted in 1993-94, preparatory to writing a report for the California Higher Education Policy Center.33 At that time I was thoroughly disheartened by the failure of leadership to grapple with the onset of Tidal Wave II, by the short-run thinking I encountered, and by what I called a "state of denial" about future educational needs in the state. Indeed, at that time, the University of California seemed more intent on denying the existence of Tidal Wave II than doing anything constructive about it. The governor’s office and the Legislature appeared to be largely disengaged from the issues, and the three systems seemed more intent on defending prior gains than on looking ahead and exploring ideas. In retrospect, California had not experienced such a prolonged recession for many years, and it is clear that few were prepared for it. Eventually, as the economy improved, and as the first compact was negotiated with the governor, a sense of perspective returned, and people began focusing on the needs ahead. My interviews in 1998 reflected this more optimistic tone, as the fresh flow of resources provides people with the energy and willingness to tackle hard problems.

The danger, of course, is that a new setback in the economy, which is likely to happen in the next several years, will close people down again into defensive postures at just the point that large numbers of young people are ready for college. There is also the danger that short-term thinking will not be limited just to hard times, but will continue now that the economy is improved. It seems incumbent, therefore, for all concerned–the next governor, the Legislature, the institution heads–to put in place safeguards to ensure that access is not curtailed for thousands of students in the next downturn, as occurred during the last. The reports and their recommendations provide numerous constructive ideas to prevent that from happening.
In particular, the biggest danger would be a relapse into "business as usual," with any sense of urgency lost, now that the money is flowing again. Everything we know about modern economies points to the likelihood of subsequent downturns, and now is the time to plan for that occurrence. Shared Responsibility used the metaphor of the "eye of the hurricane" to point out that it is in good times that one must prepare for the difficult times likely to follow. My interviews were generally encouraging on this front, and I believe that the next governor will find the leaders of higher education eager to work with him on the Tidal Wave II agenda, guided in part by the recommendations and findings of these four reports.

Reactions to the Reports
The general sense I gained from the interviews is that most thought that the reports had had considerable impact, although two of the reports, the Citizens Commission and the Education Roundtable, were only recently released. Those with whom I talked were generally aware of these last two reports, and had often participated in the deliberations prior to their publication. People did not remember the details of Shared Responsibility, which was released over two years ago, but there was a strong sense from those in a position to know that the report had considerable impact on the Office of the Governor and on key members of the Legislature (approval of the 10th UC campus notwithstanding). The concept embodied in the title–shared responsibility–seems to have made an impact, signifying that one could not leave the responsibility for Tidal Wave II entirely up to the state.

The RAND report had more mixed reviews, in part because several thought the budget projections showing higher education being slowly squeezed out were unduly pessimistic. In particular, the steady growth of corrections was thought to be overestimated considerably. It is an open secret that this report was originally planned to represent the views of the Education Roundtable, whose members (the heads of the institutions) did not think highly of it; the report was not what they wanted. Instead, California at the Crossroads, the recent report of the Education Roundtable, was produced to fill that gap. As we have seen, California at the Crossroads is essentially a budget request for a second compact, and, assuredly, that is not what RAND produced. It was no doubt naive to think that a social science think tank would produce that type of document; it is not in their nature. Instead, the RAND report laid out the challenge of accommodating Tidal Wave II, and urged considerable reallocation within institutions to achieve that objective. Apparently, the institution heads did not want to hear that message, at least as bluntly as the report delivered it, and they unofficially disavowed it. The institution heads were none too comfortable with the California Higher Education Policy Center (author of Shared Responsibility) either, and such friction may simply be in the nature of things.

The Citizens Commission report, being recently released, was clearer in the minds of those with whom I talked, and again the reaction was decidedly mixed. The governance recommendations, which included calls for appointed rather than elected boards of the community colleges and for strengthening CPEC, were predictably controversial, with several either denouncing the ideas or simply stating that they would not fly politically. The recommendation on community college boards would affect hundreds of elected officials, and in California, being elected to a community college board is often the start of a political career leading to the Legislature. Few thought this recommendation would go anywhere, although the problem it was attempting to address was acknowledged. Similarly, I encountered few enthusiasts for a strengthened CPEC, and without clear advocates either in the governor’s office or in the Legislature, this proposal will also die. The trust fund proposal, under which extra funds for higher education are banked in good years and drawn upon in bad years, was similarly dismissed by most interviewees, not because it is a bad idea, but simply because it goes so counter to the existing political culture. Few thought that the Legislature would sit back and watch funds being banked when they could either be spent or returned as tax cuts. One has the sense that the commission’s central recommendations will go unfulfilled.

Several people I visited had not seen the Education Roundtable report (California at the Crossroads), but those who glanced at my copy recognized it as simply a fancy version of the request for a second multi-year compact, which the governor had turned down. The concern was that there were not enough specifics on institutional productivity gains, that there was nothing that could be nailed down, assessed, and used for accountability purposes. The next governor would be wise to insist upon such measurable contributions by the institutions in exchange for a multi-year funding agreement, contributions that are fully in spirit of the proposals in the other three reports.

Other Findings
In addition to discussion about the reports, several other ideas surfaced. I should first mention the strong, positive reaction I had to the views and approach taken by the new chancellor of the CSU system, Charles Reed, and his new deputy, David Spence. Both men have had wide-ranging experience in systems of higher education outside California, and they bring to the task a refreshing willingness to tackle the hard issues before them, something that insiders often lack. Reed told me that before he arrived, he was worried about how Tidal Wave II could be accommodated, but upon seeing how much unused capacity exists on the CSU campuses, he has no doubt that with more extensive use of existing facilities, CSU can do its share. He and Spence are actively pursuing year-round operation, longer class days, weekend courses, and numerous other ways to maximize the potential use of the existing physical plant. This policy will cost more money in operating funds, but is far cheaper than building new campuses, the point that Shared Responsibility made so clearly. Reed is also firmly committed to improving and increasing the output of the teacher education programs at CSU, a point mentioned in several of the reports. The next governor would be well advised to give the chancellor and his staff all support necessary, for this system head is clearly committed to addressing the issues raised in the reports, and coping with Tidal Wave II.

The UC system under President Richard Atkinson has recognized its need for greater outreach to communities within the state, including outreach to the K-12 schools in order to increase the number of minority youth able to qualify for UC admission. A report by the UC Outreach Task Force, completed in July 1997, lays out in considerable detail what the University must do in order to enhance linkages with the public schools.34 Furthermore, in response to concerns expressed by business leaders, the university is committed to increasing both undergraduate and graduate enrollments in engineering and computer science, in order to meet the labor force needs of the new economy.35 While the university is sheltered by its constitutional autonomy, it is clear that public opinion and the growing needs of society are making an impact, and helping its leaders to move the university toward greater involvement with the surrounding society. Such moves are to be applauded, and the next governor should do all in his power to encourage these directions.

Nor are the community colleges standing still. The new chancellor, Thomas Nussbaum, has a strategic plan that meshes well with the concerns of the reports for increased access to higher education. Much of the work is at the nuts-and-bolts level, involving calendar changes for less down-time, improved articulation requirements with high schools, improved transfer agreements with four-year colleges, expanded use of technology, and outcome assessment. Noteworthy is the new Partnership for Excellence, a commitment of an additional $100 million per year by the governor and Legislature to augment community college budgets for a sustained period in exchange for community college commitment to meet specific student and performance outcomes. The chancellor of the community colleges is not as strong a position as the heads of UC and CSU (the issue the Citizens Commission seeks to change), but he seems comfortable working with the districts in a federalist model of leadership. One suspects that the community colleges can be counted on to do their share in meeting Tidal Wave II, in large part because ensuring access is their central value.

Little has been said about the 71 private colleges and universities of California thus far, but the reports all note the importance of using spaces in these colleges and universities to maximum advantage. The principal means of ensuring that result is to increase the awards available under the Cal Grant program, and that has been done. The recently signed state budget has funds in it to raise the maximum Cal Grant to more than $9,000, an amount that will enable many students to attend a private college, if that is their choice. When the enrollment crunch hits, few seats should be empty in California’s private colleges.

A newcomer to educational supply, the California Virtual University, is also up and running, and may help modestly in meeting some aspects of future enrollment demand, although just how much is highly uncertain. This initiative links the on-line course offerings of any accredited California college or university (89 colleges are currently participating) and awards credits and degrees through the institutions; 36 the virtual university offers a well designed and promising addition to the array of educational options available to state residents. It is likely that the main users of distance learning will be older, part-time students, rather than the undergraduates that make up Tidal Wave II.

A common concern expressed by several educators was the impact of term limits on legislative expertise (or lack thereof) of elected officials. Interviewees expressed concern that time in office is too short for legislators to develop the depth of understanding that makes for good laws and good budget policy. Presumably, if this complaint is accurate, higher education is not alone in experiencing the problem, and this issue is obviously something the people of the state will have to evaluate and change, should that seem desirable. It is noteworthy that leaders in higher education could only point to three or four legislators as sufficiently knowledgeable and interested in higher education to be worthy of interviewing.



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