Finding a direction home

In this case, California has everything to lose

Dr. Zingg is president of California State University, Chico.

“Once upon a time, you dressed so fine .…”

So begins one of the most important rock-and-roll songs ever written, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” First recorded in 1965—“once upon a time”—it coincided with the launching of the California Master Plan for Higher Education, an optimistic statement about the future of the state enabled through a confident and attractive system of public higher education—“you dressed so fine.”

The master plan offered a vision of access, affordability, and quality that was bold, inspiring, and attainable. It was predicated on the understanding that an educational system with such characteristics “is essential to the cultural, political, and economic health of a nation and state.” It assumed that public policy would support such a vision because it was the right thing to do.

Yet, the reality in Sacramento is a shortfall of legislators who seem able to appreciate what the state has accomplished through a robust system of public higher education. Since 2000, while enrollments at its institutions have increased 29 percent, the Californ-ia State University’s percentage of general-fund revenues has declined 27 percent.

Conversely, over this decade, the allocation to prisons has more than doubled, from $5 billion to $11 billion. This amount roughly equals the total allocation to the campuses of the California State University, the University of California, and the community college system.

The message is clear: California’s governor and Legislature—and a public that acquiesces to political leadership devoid of vision and a sense of long-term obligation—have decided that a high-quality system of public higher education is expendable.

Without this commitment, access is denied—the CSU is currently reducing its enrollments by more than 40,000 full-time-equivalent students. Affordability is decreased—student fees have gone up 100 percent since 2000. Diversity is threatened—especially given the changing socio-economic demographics of our state. And quality has eroded—academic budgets have been slashed, and hiring freezes deny new faculty coming to our campuses.

It should surprise no one, then, that recent articles on the 50th anniversary of the master plan’s conception in 1960 are more funereal than celebratory in tone.

So, back to Dylan. Do we face “no direction home” to the vision of the master plan, or can we turn this crisis around?

We can. And we must. And the 3,000 Chico State students and community members who rallied for higher education on March 10 brought their voices to this chorus of understanding.