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Ralph Nader: Stop The Public University Tuition Spiral – OpEd

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Students of California, arise, you have nothing to lose but a crushing debt!

The corporate state of California, ever ready to seize its ideological and commercial hour during a recession, has a chokehold on California’s public universities. With its tax-coddled plutocracy and a nod to further corporatization, the state government has taken the lid off tuition increases big time.

Students of the University of California at Berkeley may pay a proposed $23,000 in tuition by the 2015-2016 school year, up from $11,160 this year (2011) that in turn is up from $2,716 in the academic year 2002-2003. In short, tuition for resident undergraduates has more than quadrupled in ten years.

Before and right after World War II the idea of a public university included a then-called “educational fee” close to zero, from City College of New York to UC Berkeley. Old timers now look back at those days as economic life-savers toward a degree and a productive life for them and the American economy.

No more. Those gates of opportunity are crumbling at an accelerating pace. More street protests by students are focusing on relentless tuition hikes and years of repaying student debt loans while the rich get richer and the tax cuts for the rich are extended. As Mike Konzcal writes, “One of the Occupy movements’ major objectives is combating the privatization of public higher education and its replacement with a debt-fueled economy of indenture.”

So far the students have gotten nowhere in the Golden State. The Board of Regents rules with an iron hand. Their chancellors are enforcing the state government’s unprecedented cutbacks of facilities, faculty, courses and maintenance-repairs.

Berkeley Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes called the “current crisis” as being “fundamentally about privatization and the dismantling of a national public treasure.”

But the students have a very powerful unused tool of direct democracy – thanks to Governor Hiram Johnson’s enactment of the voters’ initiative process nearly a hundred years ago. They can qualify an initiative on the ballot that would set tuition at affordable levels or even become like some leading European countries where free schooling extends through the university years.

Planning and implementing this people’s legislation would be a rigorous course in law, political science and communications.

The effort invites the best minds from the faculty. The language of the initiative must be clear, persuasive and as devoid of ambiguity and openings for circumvention as possible.

Depending on whether the initiative amends the California Constitution or has statutory status, the students will have to collect as many as 810,000 or as few as 505,000 valid signatures on petitions to get on the November 2012 ballot. Ordinarily, without lots of money for paid petitioners, this can be a formidable challenge. But with millions of community college and university students reachable on campus, combined with their families, this should be a fast piece of cake.

According to the eminent University of San Diego Law Professor Robert Fellmeth, there is no legal obstacle to a statutory initiative tied to the funding power of the legislature. It would stipulate, as a condition precedent to state general fund monies, specified tuition limits (perhaps at least a freeze), to provide equitable access to higher education opportunity.

Of course an initiative that is a constitutional amendment can be more supremely declarative.

There are other states where students can establish a legal protection for publically accessible universities by enacting statewide initiatives. All these tools of democracy should be obvious to any high school student were functional civics and democratic practices taught with the same fervor devoted to computer training.

So let’s see if California’s deteriorating public university systems can be rescued by their undergraduate and graduate students who place the priority of accessible, adequate public higher education where it belongs for the longer run.

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a politician, activist and the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel. In his career as consumer advocate he founded many organizations including the Center for Study of Responsive Law, the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the Center for Auto Safety, Public Citizen, Clean Water Action Project, the Disability Rights Center, the Pension Rights Center, the Project for Corporate Responsibility and The Multinational Monitor (a monthly magazine).

One thought on “Ralph Nader: Stop The Public University Tuition Spiral – OpEd

  • Avatar
    December 30, 2011 at 5:27 pm
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    It’s Time UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau Put California Student Needs First: Reign in inefficiencies
    I love University of California having been a student & lecturer. Like so many I am disappointed by Birgeneau’s failure to arrest escalating costs & tuition. Birgeneau doubled UC Berkeley (UCB) tuition and fees. On an all in cost, Birgeneau’s leadership molded UCB into the most expensive public university. Faculty salaries must reflect California’s ability to pay, not what others are paid. Instate tuition consumes 14% of a Californian’s median family income.
    Paying more is not a better university. UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) dismissed removing many inefficiencies. Birgeneau did not consider faculty teaching more classes, doubling the time between sabbaticals, freezing vacant faculty positions, increasing class size, freezing pay & benefits, reforming pensions & health costs.
    Birgeneau said removing such inefficiencies and cost savings would not be healthy. Exodus of faculty, administrators: who can afford them?
    Californians agree it is far from the ideal situation. Birgeneau cannot expect to do business as usual: raising tuition/fees; granting pay raises & huge bonuses during a weak economy that has sapped state revenues & individual income.
    More recently, Chancellor Birgeneau’s campus police deployed violent baton jabs on students protesting increases in tuition. The sky above Cal. will not fall when Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) is ousted.

    Email opinions to the UC Board of Regents [email protected]

    Reply

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