Briefing Report: How to Fix CA's Failing Public Higher Education Industry

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Farewell Address," 1961


Nearly everyone who has attended a public school or college has been taught Eisenhower’s warning of the "military-industrial complex." Not surprisingly, few professors find time to instruct students on his equally prescient caution, delivered in the same speech, concerning the corruption of colleges and universities brought on by the lure of money. Fifty years later, money and the insular nature of the higher education industry have served as a catalyst for academia’s diminishing value to California. In order to save California public higher education from itself, we need a politically and institutionally independent body to review and recommend specific actions that will re-shape our public colleges and universities into productive, valuable, and accountable agencies that will contribute to California’s recovery.

Resting on Laurels Laid By the Master Plan

California’s Master Plan for Higher Education was adopted in 1960 to prepare the state for the vast baby-boom enrollment increases while ensuring quality and efficiency were maintained at our universities. Developed largely by the higher education segments themselves - the University of California, the California State University, and California Community Colleges - it was a preemptive effort aimed at preserving their relative autonomy. The essence of the 1960 Master Plan is differentiation of function: UC serves as the top-quality doctorate-level research university, drawing freshmen from the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates; CSU is the baccalaureate workhorse, but also educates through the masters level, drawing from the top 33.3 percent of high school graduates; and CCCs provide career training and prepare students for transfer to four-year universities, serving "anyone who can benefit from instruction." For decades this model worked well, guiding the Legislature in resource allocation, providing broad access at low cost to students, and maintaining quality. Over time, however, the construct has crumbled.

A Failure to Change: For the Love of Money Is the Root of All Evil

The Master Plan worked well in the early years. But as time passed, faculty and administrators fell for the power of money of which Eisenhower warned. Costs climbed as public employees persuaded the Legislature and Governor to permit and promote collective bargaining; differentiation of function and quality of education diminished as self-serving academics approved more arcane programs and courses, many of dubious public value; and confidence in the institutions waned as the taxpayers began to see the universities as ever more insular, inefficient, and ineffective. In fact, nearly nine out of ten Californians think the state’s higher education industry needs changes; a mere eight percent are content with the status quo. Moreover, almost 60 percent believe that the quality of instruction is a problem. In short, while the public is unsatisfied with the state’s public colleges and universities, its academics and administrators are unwilling to change, and legislative efforts have been well-intentioned but limited in scope and intensity.

Statewide Coordination: The Ivory Tower’s Crumbling Cornerstone

One reason state policymakers have not held the public higher education industry accountable is because of its insular, semi-autonomous nature. Thus, the higher education system is, as a practical matter, uncoordinated, unaccountable, and ultimately unsustainable. The nominal higher education coordinating body and advisor to the Governor and Legislature - the California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) - is dominated by parochial higher education interests and essentially powerless to affect useful change. While CPEC does a good job collecting and crunching data, it primarily advocates alongside the universities for increased funding, greater diversity (except intellectual diversity), and similar issues, rather than addressing the fundamental subjects of higher education coordination, efficiency, and planning. Moreover, because of the UC Regents’ constitutional autonomy and the traditional deference granted the CSU Board of Trustees, the Legislature rarely demands that the institutions prove their public value. Instead, it periodically reviews and attempts to update the Master Plan. Indeed, since the original 1960 Master Plan - the model we still work with - there have been five such reviews. The most recent was a 2002 review with full-time Democrat and Republican staff, which birthed a 225-page master plan for preschool through higher education. Yet nothing has changed, and seven years later still another master plan committee was established and is holding hearings. There is a better way.

It’s Not Rocket Science: A Model for Change

The California Legislature needs to return higher education to its rightful owners - California taxpayers. Our own experience shows us the way. In the early 1990s, faced with an academically rudderless K-12 system, the Governor and Legislature created an Academic Standards Commission composed of very smart, independent experts. This commission painstakingly worked in the face of intense political pressure to draft state academic standards for each grade and subject, ultimately adopted by the State Board of Education. Those standards are now widely recognized as among the best in the nation. But there is little doubt that without the political and institutional independence provided the Commission, our standards would today be a hodgepodge of political compromise, regressing to the mean and of questionable value to teachers and pupils.

Similarly, we must start our higher education reform by replacing or reconstituting CPEC as a truly independent and empowered body. That means creating a body whose members are appointed by the Governor, un-tethered to the higher education industry. Next, this body needs the power - political power above all else - to drive institutional responsiveness and to inspire and maintain state policymaker respect. How is this done? In Illinois, the Board of Higher Education, charged with providing the Governor and Legislature with budget and policy recommendations, emerged from its bureaucratic shell and insistently reviewed that state’s public higher education system, eventually recommending the elimination, consolidation, or reduction of 192 programs. Campus faculty and staff, predictable as Pavlov’s drooling dog, howled in protest. Nevertheless, this thoughtful and objective review forced campuses to identify and defend their priorities to the public - virtually unheard of heretofore. By the end of Illinois’ "Priorities, Quality, Productivity" process, most of these recommendations were implemented, and the resulting hundreds of millions of dollars in savings and efficiencies were used to add course sections, reduce class size, improve libraries, and to take other steps to improve quality. Students and taxpayers, for a change, were placed before academics and administrators. California can and must embark on a similar review.

President Eisenhower, speaking a year after adoption of the 1960 Master Plan, was right: the power of money in the higher education industry "is ever present and is gravely to be regarded." Today, 50 years later, we must act to take back higher education from its insulated interests and return it to the taxpayers for the benefit of all Californians.


For more information on this report or other Education issues, contact Roger Mackensen, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.