History Repeating: Jerry Brown vs. The Universities

One of the mostly forgotten features of Jerry Brown's first governorship, from 1975 to 1983, was the extended battles he fought with the state's university systems, particularly the University of California. Brown cut back on their funding and took all sorts of shots at the value of what the universities do. University leaders did some blasting back. Things got so bad that, among other things, UC, which had housed the papers of Brown's father Pat, wouldn't take Jerry's. They are at USC.

Brown's budget proposal Monday -- and the almost instant criticism from the leaders of all three university systems (UC, Cal State, and the community colleges) -- suggests that, in matters of higher education, Brown's second go-round as governor could look like its first. The universities, on a percentage basis,  would take the worst of the cuts -- with UC and Cal State receiving a combined hit of $1 billion. The community colleges also take a budget hit and would have to hike fees from $26 to $36 per unit.

The community college chief Jack Scott, a Democrat and former legislator who had an awkward (some thought testy) exchange with Brown at a budget forum in LA in December, denounced the proposed cut and fee increases, and predicted 350,000 students would be turned away as a result. In a joint statement, Scott, UC President Mark Yudof, and Cal State Chancellor Charles Reed say: "Now is not the time to shrink public higher education, but to grow it."

The universities would be justified in fighting this proposal with everything they've got == especially because the cuts come on top of a generation of cuts, and because Brown is offering no reform that would protect these systems from future cuts. The universities might be wise to tell Brown that they'll put an initiative on the ballot carving out constitutional protection for their funds of the type that other interest groups have won.

The advantage of such an approach: It would provide the universities a weapon of self-defense in the short-term -- and would make the entire budget system even more unworkable in the long term, perhaps hastening the destruction of a fiscal system that badly needs to be replaced.

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