The Surrender of California's Higher Ed Leaders

Last week, the leaders of California's three university systems -- Mark Yudof of the University of California, Charles Reed of the California State University system, and the community colleges -- went to Sacramento to fight like hell against the hundreds of millions in proposed cuts that each of their system faces.

Ooops. I'm sorry. That's wrong. They went to Sacramento to say they would live with those cuts, even though they would do damage to their systems and campuses, which are central to the future of California. But they don't want any more cuts. And darn it, if people don't support Gov. Brown's proposal for extending taxes and they're forced to make more cuts and raise fees, they might get really, really mad.

Said Reed: "We're saying, 'I don't like it. I don't want to do it, but I'm willing to do it for the CSU if there is a future to reinvest in California and have a conversation about what kind of California do we want for our kids, what kind of economy do we want, what kind of people do we want in the work force,"

Yes, it really was that pathetic.

These university systems are always in jeopardy because of a crazy budget system that includes constitutional and initiative protections for other state spending programs -- but not the universities. So higher education is among the easiest big pieces of the budget to cut.

It would seem like it would be past time to fight back. The universities have nothing to lose -- since they're being cut anyway. And the universities do have some weapons in a fight.

The university's student bodies represent a potential army of objectors to the cuts that, if well organized, could be a force to push back against cuts. The networks of university alumni remain relatively untapped. The universities employ lawyers who could make trouble for the state government in the courts. And the university system leaders enjoy a pretty decent bully pulpit--though it doesn't help if you aren't willing to bully.

What would bullying look like?

Well, if the university system leadership were serious about fighting cuts, they'd be working right now to raise money and gather signatures for a ballot initiative that would give them protection against cuts--something similar to the local government measure Prop 22. And yes, as Cal State's Reed noted when I asked him about this during a press call last week, such constitutional budget protections aren't good governance--they are part of what's ruining California.

But the universities shouldn't be worrying about good government when they're under constant attack. Brown is proposing $1 billion in cuts to UC and Cal State, and hundreds of millions more to the community college. And those could be followed by even more cuts.

It's time to fight -- and fight dirty.

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