What the hell are they thinking?

As California’s public university system falls apart, three professors and an erstwhile student question why


For more information on the ongoing protests by students, faculty and university employees, go to www.studentsforcalifornia.org.
It’s your university. To learn a little more about the history of the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education, search the digital archives at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu.
SN&R is partially funding an investigation of the Regents of the University of California that is being sponsored by community-based journalism Web site Spot.us. Keep track of this ongoing investigation at http://spot.us.

It was nice while it lasted. For 50 years, California has by statute provided all of its citizens, regardless of economic status, access to an affordable higher education through the community college, CSU and UC systems. That promise, included in the state Master Plan for Higher Education and codified by the Donahoe Higher Education Act passed by the Legislature in 1960, has become an essential component of the California Dream.

Through several recessions, a radical shift in state tax structure and four master plan revisions, the state has managed, more or less, to keep its pledge. This time it’s different.

California’s economy is crashing, and it’s taking what was once regarded as the world’s greatest public higher-education system with it. The promise made five decades ago is in danger of being broken, perhaps irrevocably.

As this issue hits the newsstands, thousands of students, teachers and employees, from elementary schools to universities across the state are hitting the streets for a Day of Action and Strike in Defense of Public Education. Fee increases, layoffs, furloughs and course reductions ad infinitum have riled the natives. The worm has turned.

With that in mind, I contacted my three favorite college professors, Len Sellers from San Francisco State and William Dorman and Arthur Williamson from Sacramento State, to gain some insight into the past, present and future of public higher education in California. Before we begin, a warning: All three are very pessimistic about the current state of public higher education in California, and its future, assuming it has one.

Like millions of Californians, I’m a beneficiary of the state’s university system. I was a reluctant college student. When I graduated from high school in 1978, I joined the Navy instead of spending another four to eight years of my life in classrooms. After earning an honorable discharge, I used the skills learned in the service to land a high-paying union job in the San Francisco shipyards.

Things were different back then. There was work, for one thing. Overtime paid double. The union provided full medical benefits and 80 percent dental. I was making bank until I blew my back out in 1987, ending my career as a marine machinist. The union sent me to a first-rate vocational rehabilitation center, where I took a series of aptitude tests. It was determined that I should become a journalist or a private detective. I’d had some success with journalism in high school, so I enrolled in classes at San Francisco State in 1988. I graduated from Sacramento State in 1992 with a degree in journalism, just in time for the post-industrial era.

From my perspective, the promise made by the post-World War II generation 50 years ago has been kept. The CSU transformed me from a guy who could no longer do the job he’d been trained for into a fairly capable journalist. Although I learned something from all of my teachers, I’ve always given primary credit to Sellers, Williamson and Dorman. Professionally, intellectually and morally, they helped shape who I am today. If not for California’s commitment to affordable higher education, I would’ve never met these men, and I’d be the lesser for it.

From Sellers, a total hard-ass who taught me news writing at San Francisco State, I learned that the reporter, as a public servant, has a sacred duty to get things right, especially spelling. Williamson, a hyperkinetic Sacramento State history professor, blew my mind with the breadth and depth of his knowledge and his love for democracy. Dorman, in his literary journalism class, cured me of my hard-boiled writing style, at least temporarily, and through his own actions in and outside the classroom, taught me the value of standing up for your own beliefs.

I like to imagine that every student who’s passed through California’s postsecondary schools has had a similar, transformative experience. After all, it’s not regarded as one of the finest systems in the world for nothing. However, not everyone perceives higher education as a public good. It took conservatives less than 10 years to begin chipping away at the Donahoe Act, and despite the system’s efforts to fill in the gaps with student grants and loans, the financial burden has steadily shifted from the state to the backs of students. The rising arc of privatization can be traced by 40 years of student fee increases.

When I first began attending classes at San Francisco State in 1988, the tuition fee was $666 per year, which when indexed for inflation works out to $1,580 in 2007 dollars. By the time I graduated from Sacramento State in 1992, the fee had increased by more than 2/3, to $2,250 in 2007 dollars. For the 2009-2010 school year, CSU students are paying $4,026, which includes $672 tacked on last summer. That’s a 500 percent increase in little more than two decades.

If under similar circumstances I had to retrain for a new career today, it wouldn’t be at CSU. I couldn’t afford it.

At the UC level, a 32 percent fee increase in 2010, on top of a 9 percent rise in 2009, has driven annual tuition above $10,000. Compare that to the $1,880 2007 dollars it cost to attend the UC in 1965. Community-college students have endured similar hikes, relatively, with the per-unit fee rising from $20 to $26 this year. That’s a 30 percent increase and double the $13 per-unit fee charged in the mid-1990s.

Assuming California’s government carries out the will of the people, a majority of whom support public higher education, what gives?

American journalist and historian Thomas Frank offers one possible answer. In his 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, he explores the reasons why citizens vote against their own interests. Frank, a Kansas native, postulates that the traditional class-based politics of his home state have been replaced by politics centered on volatile issues such as illegal immigration, abortion rights and gay marriage. Embellished, it goes something like this:

Working-class folk, terrified by the hordes of gay Mexican abortionists pouring across the border, stampede polling centers to pull the lever for the most right-wing, anti-gay-Mexican-abortionist candidate on the ballot, even though the candidate’s tax-cut proposals will cripple vital public services working-class folks depend upon.

Sound slightly familiar? Well, hang on, Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore! Welcome to California!

I exaggerate, but just a little. California’s ultraconservatives are a bit more stealthy than the Sunflower State’s, and way ahead of their time. Their attacks on public higher education and all things government can be traced to Ronald Reagan’s first run for governor in 1966, when the former B-movie star promised to “send the welfare bums back to work” and “clean up that mess in Berkeley,” where the burgeoning free-speech and anti-war movements had, in Reagan’s view, transformed the campus into “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants.”

In 1969, Reagan authorized the police crackdown in People’s Park in Berkeley that killed one student and seriously injured hundreds of protesters. In 1970, he delivered upon a campaign promise, raising tuition fees on UC students for the first time since passage of the Donahoe Act.

When Reagan took his wolf-in-sheepskin act national in 1976, Howard Jarvis and a host of government-bashing, tax-cutting conservatives filled the vacuum, convincing a public traumatized by the energy crisis, runaway inflation and a stagnant economy to vote for Proposition 13 in 1978. Besides cutting the major source for education funding—property taxes—by 52 percent, the initiative raised the bar for passing future tax increases to a two-thirds majority vote. The state’s been held hostage by a mean-spirited Republican minority ever since.

Admittedly, this is a gross simplification of what’s transpired during the past 30 years. No doubt there are plenty of conservative readers out there, including more than a few graduates of the state’s public higher-education system, who will claim the exact opposite. It’s not government’s job to provide everyone with an affordable education; it’s better off left to the free market. Before these disciples of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and Grover Norquist make the decision for all of us, it’s worth examining exactly what we’re giving up.


One of the arguably cool things about the Internet is that you can locate just about anyone from your past life that you want these days, especially college professors. This is particularly true for Sellers, 65, who in addition to remaining professor emeritus with the San Francisco State journalism department, is somewhat of a wheel in the digital multimedia industry. Although I haven’t spoken to him for more than 20 years, when I talked to him on the phone recently, it felt like I’d just stepped out of his class yesterday.

Back in 1988, in my very first news-writing class with Sellers, the professor informed us that if we wanted to get rich, we’d chosen the wrong occupation. Truer words were never spoken. Less than half the class showed up for the next session. That’s why I call him a hard-ass.

I knew I was destined to become a journalist so I showed up for the next class. Sellers informed us that each assignment we handed in would start out with a C grade and be reduced one full letter grade for each misspelled word. I went many years without misspelling a word in a news story.

I’ve always responded well to the whip. Tell me it’s impossible to get an A in your class, and I’ll do the impossible and get an A. Sellers would have none of it, and gave me a B-plus at the end of the semester. I’ve never been prouder of a grade in my life.

His roots are not unlike my own, and he appreciated the fact that many of his students at San Francisco State come from blue-collar backgrounds as well: hungry, hardworking, no-nonsense. He might still be bumping knots in Oregon himself if it wasn’t for California’s Master Plan for Higher Education.

“I spent my summer after high school working up there in a plywood mill,” he recalled. “I was a truly knucklehead student, barely graduated. … In those days, the state of Oregon, like most states, had two universities, and you qualified or you didn’t. I didn’t qualify for either, so I was dead in the water as far as academics. But California had this master plan, where you could go enroll in a junior college at almost no cost, and all you had to do was figure out how to stay alive and get to your classes.”

It was 1963, and California’s open-door policy for out-of-state students gave Sellers the only shot he’d ever need. He parlayed it into a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State and a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He began teaching journalism at San Francisco State in 1974, and by the time I arrived in 1988, the “no A’s” policy was firmly in place.

“To tell you the truth, in the first 10 years I taught it, I never gave out an A, at all, in either news writing or reporting,” he recalled. “The reason is simple. Unlike mass-media courses, you guys weren’t graded on a curve, you weren’t competing against each other, you were competing against professional standards, so you always knew how close or far way you were from being a professional.”

I reminded him that I got a B-plus.

“Outstanding! That’s really rare.”

A hard-ass till the end.

In 1990, I was still attending classes at San Francisco State, when the recession that would cost President George H.W. Bush his second term set in. The coming doubling of student fees across the university system was telegraphed well in advance, and I transferred to Sacramento State to cut down on expenses.

As a news writer for The State Hornet, I reported on what were then the largest fee increases in CSU’s history. I became somewhat of an expert on the topic, and daily newspapers from across the state would contact me for the latest information. I still have the clippings from the Hornet; most of them begin with Gov. Pete Wilson wielding some sort of bloody budget ax.

I encountered Sacramento State history professor Arthur Williamson quite by accident. I don’t remember the exact title of the class, but it covered Western history from the Enlightenment to modern times. It was one of those upper-division elective courses you have to take in order to graduate. We’ve stayed in touch through the years—I reviewed his latest book, Apocalypse Then, Prophecy and the Making of the Modern World, in 2008—and without fail, he always manages to challenge my intellect.

Few people I’ve encountered can cite the litany of problems facing the university system with more speed than Williamson, who earned his Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis. The furloughs, the fee increases, the inability to retain quality professors, the list goes on. He gets so wound up he has to stop himself. He doesn’t want his comments to be construed as some sort of jeremiad. So I changed the subject and asked him why he teaches.

“There are certain kinds of questions that I regard as passionately interesting,” he explained. “These questions are part of my research, and they’re also part of my teaching. I raise a question, ‘How did secular democratic society come into existence? What created it? How did people create prisms through which they could see the world outside of religion, without reference to transcendent value? How did we create secular culture? How did we get modern science? How did we create ideas of citizenship in the modern sense?’ Those are a constellation of questions about which I’m passionate.”

If there’s one thing Williamson, 66, abhors, it’s those fill-in-the-bubble Scantron tests. A professor emeritus who still teaches at Sac State, he goes by the tried-and-trusted blue book, which requires students to actually think before providing an answer. “My purpose is to make you powerful,” he said. One of my worst habits as an alleged thinker is to conflate contemporary events with the historical. When I compared Reaganomics to the 18th-century philosophy of English conservative Edmund Burke in my first blue-book essay, Williamson correctly noted that I was off-topic and gave me a C.

For better or worse, Williamson turned me on to Friedrich Nietzsche, and I’ve been an amateur scholar of the 19th-century philosopher ever since. Our second blue-book test was on the Nietzsche pamphlet, “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life.” Although I went many years without misspelling a word in a news story, I tragically misspelled ‘Nietzsche’ in the title of my essay.

“Not a very auspicious beginning,” the professor wrote.


I spent a great deal of 1980 steaming around the Persian Gulf on the USS Sacramento during the Iranian hostage crisis. None of the weapons systems worked on the ship, which was an ammunition oiler or, as we referred to it, a target. We weren’t overly concerned, as Iran had virtually no navy to speak of.

Meanwhile, back at home, Professor William Dorman and colleagues held a talk in Sacramento State’s Redwood Room, advising students to not vent anger on their Middle Eastern counterparts and let diplomacy take its course. Former Sacramento Bee editor C.K. McClatchy caught wind of it and wrote an Op-Ed listing each professor’s name and branding them “pro-Khomenists.” Dorman began receiving obscene phone calls, and he turned to a mentor for solace. “Remember, Bill, they can kill you, but they probably won’t eat you,” his mentor advised.

Rest assured, they’ll eat you alive today, but that’s never deterred Dorman, 69, who taught War, Peace and the Mass Media from 1970 until he retired from the CSUS government department three years ago. Trust me, cruising around the gulf on top of a floating bomb is a picnic compared to standing up to the C.K. McClatchys of the world. That takes real courage. Dorman reinforced the teachings of my parents, that you stand up for what you believe in, no matter what.

I took Dorman’s literary journalism course my last semester at Sacramento State. For those not familiar with the genre, literary journalism applies the techniques of fiction to nonfiction writing. Think Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe. Up until I took the class, my primary literary reference points were mainly drawn from pulp fiction. It’s still a style I rely on occasionally, but Dorman taught me there’s more to writing than just aping Raymond Chandler. If I applied the techniques from the course, he suggested, someday I might even get published in The New Yorker.

Like Sellers, Dorman’s roots in California’s public higher education go way back. He attended community college for two years, earned his undergraduate degree from Sacramento State in 1964 and his graduate degree from UC Berkeley in 1965. His wife began attending classes as a junior at CSUS in 1961; she paid $480 in fees per semester(not indexed for inflation), which included $46 for the term, $40 for books, and $400 to room in the dorm. I repeat: That’s $400 for a semester’s room and board. If the state hadn’t subsidized the cost of their educations, there’s a good chance Dorman and his wife might have never earned degrees.

“The state, clearly in my mind, did make a decision to underwrite higher education, and it paid extraordinary dividends,” he recalled. “It was the passport for many people who traditionally would not have gone to college to do so. They all contribute hugely to the economy of this state, in terms of their economic activity and also the taxes they pay.”

I still haven’t been published in The New Yorker, but because of that literary journalism class, I gravitated to alternative newspapers such as SN&R, where cover stories such as this one give writers room to spread out. Thanks to the state’s system of public higher education, I’ve been a working journalist and taxpaying citizen ever since I graduated. Maybe I’ve even committed art once or twice.

I’m certain that my experience with the state’s public higher education is by no means unique. Obviously, it offers something of value—witness the exorbitant fees students are paying nowadays. In the late 1960s, professor Sellers managed to graduate from San Francisco State without any debt. When I graduated in 1992, I had accumulated $4,000 in student loans. Sellers had students graduating with loans totaling more than $20,000 15 years ago. Given the average pay rate for journalists, that shouldn’t take any longer than, say, 10 or 15 years to pay off.

Why have we chosen to place more and more of the financial burden for education on students? Williamson thinks part of the problem is a decline in civic-mindedness.

“It’s worthwhile asking the question, why are people tearing up the infrastructure in ways that don’t really seem to be saving that much, if anything?” Williamson said. “Why are people doing it this way?”

The short answer is they don’t want to pay taxes, whether it’s good for society or not. According to Williamson, you can’t get much more undemocratic than that.

“Paying taxes is not just paying your dues, it’s a mark of your being a part of society,” he said. “You’re helping to build society. It’s a part of who you are. Regarding it as some sort of degrading or immoral thing, an immoral act, that virtue is somehow not paying taxes—well, in the democratic revolutions, that’s what virtue was. You pay taxes, so you build society. You build what you are inherently a part of. That’s what it’s about. … Do you really want to have the infrastructure of this society decline so you don’t have to pay for it?”

When I first contacted Sellers via e-mail, he too stressed the importance of civic duty.

“I gratefully repaid California in two ways, I think,” Sellers said. “I taught for 25 years after getting a Ph.D. from Stanford [a professor’s salary makes such work almost pro bono], and after starting a company that went public, I paid obscene amounts of state taxes. I never objected to the taxes, because without California’s commitment to higher education, I would probably still be working in an Oregon plywood mill.”

When selfishness becomes a virtue, democratic society falls apart.

“The paralysis that we confront is that we have no confidence in our agency,” Williamson continued. “We have no confidence in our ability to create our world. That loss of confidence is perhaps the root of it all. … We do not think we can really change things. We do not think we can really build a world to which our nominal values subscribe. If we don’t believe that, then clearly, we’re not going to have a civic world.”

Sellers got in early on the tech boom, establishing the first online newspaper at San Francisco State in 1995 and managing a number of successful startups on his own time, often employing his own students, many of whom had no choice but to work and attend school. As an adviser to companies in India and China, Sellers observes that if California doesn’t begin investing more in its students, it’s doubtful that we’ll be able to compete with either of those emerging economies. In fact, it may already be too late to catch up.

“There are more than 1 million computer scientists graduated every 12 months in China. The resources there are huge. These are intellectual resources; this isn’t digging up coal, or drilling for water—these are pure intellectual resources that are growing because the Chinese are signing the checks to pay for that education, and we’re not doing that.” Silicon Valley, he added, would not have happened without the state’s commitment to public higher education.

Essentially, what’s at stake when thousands of students, teachers and university students take to the streets today is the future well-being of California’s citizens and its economy. The vibrant growth the state has enjoyed as more of its citizens have become college educated is almost certain to falter as more students are crowded out by higher fees and classes, and services are reduced because of budget cuts.

When Dorman first started teaching, he’d ask his pupils if they were first-generation college students. The majority would raise their hand. Twenty years later, less than half were first-generation students, often because their parents had attended CSU. But now, there seems to be a reluctance, at least among some people, to continue passing the gift along.

“The people I’m describing, and that we’re concerned about, it’s their kids that we’re talking about,” Dorman said. “It’s their grandkids that we’re talking about. Why would they want to pay them back in this way? It’s time some people stood up, and right now the only people standing up are college students and college faculty.”

There was a time, not too long ago, when parents took if for granted that their children would be better off financially than themselves. Fifty years ago, the post-World War II generation made a promise to future generations and transformed the state into the envy of the world. All of us enjoy at least some of the benefits public higher education brings to California. That will end if the state stays on its present course, and we will be forever tainted as the generation that betrayed the California Dream.

This story has been corrected from its original print version.