Whose University?

Together We Can Save the Earth.  Kings Beach, Lake Tahoe, California

Together We Can Save the Earth. Kings Beach, Lake Tahoe, California

In producing Lake Tahoe: A Fragile Beauty I was fortunate to work with many in the University of California community who generously lent of their time and expertise in support of Tahoe and the arts.  Their contributions, vital to the success of the project, could not be replicated elsewhere and were the product of careers dedicated to science, the arts, and the public good.

So it is with dismay that I read, more articles ( SF Chronicle, Channel 10 San Diego, Changing Univeristies) about UC administrative salary excesses.  In the meantime, UCOP administrators and their paid consultants are suggesting more layoffs and furloughs at the campus level.  To hear UCOP and the Regents tell it, as UC is so heavily dependent upon the State of California, in hard times the pain must be spread around, and it is time to begin culling back duplicate and unnecessary staff (as well excess desktop printers).  These lines make nice media-sized sound bites.  Only if they were true.

What we see going on in California — behind the persistent lack of state funding, the protests over increased tuition and fees, the struggle for labor contracts and fair wages — is the slow creep of privatization that, over the course of 30 years, has arrived at the door of the University of California.

In 1968, at the height of Berkeley’s free speech movement, the upper income tax bracket, for those making over $200,000, was 75%.  Slowly tax rates came down, inflation eroded the dollar, and the tax burden more heavily shifted toward the middle class.  A 1978 tax revolt produced Proposition 13, which, effectively, froze all property taxes, residential and corporate alike.  California’s tax revenue dried up and legislators started looking for alternative funding sources, one of which was the education budget.

I expect that my college experience from the 1980’s is not unique.  After a year working and taking a handful of courses at a community college, I attended California State University.  Encouraged by a professor, I transferred to the University of California.  Savings, summer jobs, and family support paid my bills.  I graduated debt free and on top of the world.  One of my parents’ proudest achievements was seeing all their seven children graduate from college – six from UC.  This could not be done today.  We’ve effectively pulled up the ladder.

Since 1960, enrollment at UC has increased by 450%, while, in inflation-adjusted dollars, student fees have gone up 800%.  State funding has decreased by 30%.  There was a time when UC was free of charge.  Today, prior to the recently approved 32% fee increase, UC students bear the full cost of instruction.

As state funding to UC diminished, the UC Board of Regents, the university’s independent board of directors largely appointed by the governor to 12-year terms, began relying on research dollars to fund the university.  Today, only 15% of the University’s budget comes from the state.  The remainder is raised by the university’s various departments in the form of research grants and foundation awards.  Approximately half of these monies go to the departments; the remainder to UC as administration costs.  The state is currently reducing their $3 billion contribution to UC by $813 million.   Meanwhile, UC has a $7.2 billion Short Term Investment Pool, which it refuses to tap.   Stymied by the university’s unwillingness to open its books and discuss financial details, a rigorous debate has evolved between the faculty, staff, unions, and students, as they dig into and decipher public documents in an effort to find alternatives.

The protests at UC over a 32% increase in student tuition, finds its roots in a long string of labor disputes.  Currently in the spotlight is an investigation by the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee (Chaired by Representative George Miller of the California 7th District) into union busting tactics by UCOP in their contract negotiations with the post-doctoral scholars’ union.  During a recent hearing held a Berkeley City College (mp3 audio), Congressman Miller was joined by Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey in expressing outrage at UC’s delays, obfuscations, and maltreatment of the post-docs.  The capacity crowd was quieted by the story of one scholar who, with two bachelor’s degree and a Duke PhD, was earning only $37,400, on contract and with minimal benefits.  Not lost on Representatives Miller, Lee, and Woolsey, was the irony that VP of Human Resources Dwayne Duckett, UC’s representative at the hearing, was unable to provide basic information regarding UC’s efforts to resolve the contract dispute despite his salary of $300,000 (as well as a $75,000 relocation bonus upon hire in 2009, temporary living expenses of $15,000, and a subsidized mortgage loan).

Since 2004, the number of UC administrators earning over $100,000 has grown by 84% (as compared to 8% for all others) and those earning over $200,000 (3,646 employees) now account for over 10% of the total UC payroll (150,549 total employees).  UC President Mark Yudof earns nearly $1 million after perks and benefits, including a housing allowance while the President’s mansion is renovated.  The highest paid UC employee, though, is Berkeley football coach Jeff Tedford, who earned $2.8 million in 2007, despite the financial losses at Berkeley’s intercollegiate sports program and campus subsidies to keep it afloat.  Finally, one cannot overlook the $23 billion of pension funds, endowments, and short-term investments lost by the Regents over the past few years to bad investments in real estate and toxic assets.  This is greater than the entire $20 billion annual UC budget.

Last year, UC Santa Cruz Professor Bob Meister detailed, in an open letter to students, a 2004 Regent decision to “pledge” student fees as collateral for construction bonds and use them to pay debt service.   Thus, if UC were to freeze student fees, their bond rating, and, hence, construction projects, many of which are not related to instruction, would be threatened.  These projects include research and medical facilities, a hotel and conference center, and a highly-controversial sports stadium being built on an earthquake fault.  For parents and students struggling to pay for a university education, UC’s tuition backed bonds mean that the second mortgage or ballooning student loans going towards college education are, in fact, an indirect subsidy to UC construction projects.

According to UC, fee increase will be offset by increased financial aid to those families making less than $70,000.  UC plans to raise additional funding by increasing the number of higher-paying out-of-state students.  Both of these policies will reduce the number of low-income students attending UC, overburden California’s state and community colleges, and further strain the state’s treasury.

For nearly a century UC educated the best and brightest Californians for a nominal fee, redefining public education as it reshaped both the state and the nation.  Over the last forty years, UC has embraced a privatization model that turns its mission on its head.  Instead of regarding students as productive members of society to be refined and dispersed into our communities, students have become collateral for capital projects.

Unless one works directly for UC, is a student, or has family wishing to attend UC, it’s easy to feel like we don’t have a horse in this race.  Yet every dollar that goes into a stadium or fattens an already over-sized paycheck or is skimmed off by an equity firm, is one that does not foster innovation in the sciences, arts, or humanities.  We all become poorer for it.

To quote President Yudof on education, “The shine is off of it.  It’s really a question of being crowded out by other priorities.”

Oops! Another Unforeseen Catastrophe

Barbie Series. 1984.

Quick Change the Channel. ©Kenneth J. Botto Photography Trust.

The recent testimony by Lamar McKay, Chairman and President of BP America, brought to mind Ken Botto.

In his testimony, Mr. McKay says, “Tragic and unforeseen as this accident was, we must not lose sight of why BP and other energy companies are operating in the offshore, including the Gulf of Mexico.”  We all benefit from motorized transportation, so we know why he’s there.  But “unforeseen”?  Of course not.  BP made an economic calculations not to cover the eventuality that is turning out to be the worst oil spill in history.  Dr. Joseph Romm writes about it on Climate Progress.

This brought to mind the line coming out of the Bush Administration after 9/11 that no one could have foreseen airplanes being flown into buildings.  Of course, US intelligence had been grappling with the prospect of terrorists and airplanes for at least five years.  Here’s just one example.  The CIA has entertained the idea since the 1970’s.

Oh, and then there was Ken Botto, a photographer in Bolinas who came up with the idea in 1984 as part of his series on Barbie and Robots.  The picture is aptly titled “Quick Change the Channel.”

Cap & Trade and the Economics of Climate Change

Decayed stump. Sugar Pine Point State Park, California

Drowned out by the launch of the iPad (enough already!) was an interesting article by Paul Krugman in the New York Times Magazine.  Neither the article, nor this post,  attempt to make the case for global warming.  It’s pretty obvious that if you’re going to increase the earth’s natural carbon dioxide output by increased burning of fossil fuels (dead plant life from eon’s past) AND increase deforestation worldwide, thus reducing the earth’s ability to reabsorb the carbon, that you’re going to upset the earth’s carbon cycle and increase atmospheric carbon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_cycle).

In Building a Green Economy, Krugman examines the economic issues surrounding climate change, including “Cap & Trade” versus other mechanisms, bringing China and India on board, and our polarized politics.  Cost estimates for addressing global warming come in around 2-3% in reduced growth. Check it out.

Regardless, as a conservative friend of mine likes to point out, sooner or later we have to move away from an petroleum-based economy.  Going green is change for the better.  It will create new jobs, innovation, and growth.  Then, of course, there are the ancillary benefits of a healthier society.

Mr. Krugman concludes with “We know how to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. We have a good sense of the costs — and they’re manageable. All we need now is the political will.”

Maybe there’s an app for that.

Measuring Regional Ecological Changes

Highway construction.  Reno, Nevada

Highway construction. Reno, Nevada

The Laboratory for Regional Ecological Activities is an interesting group working out of Stanford that monitors the regional effects of ecological changes.  They can be found on the web here.  To quote their site:

We study how ecosystems and the services they provide to people are changing at regional levels. Our group consists of ecologists, remote sensing specialists, biogeochemists and land-surface modelers, working together scientifically to support conservation, management, and policy development.

There are many links to interesting articles on their site.  One study on selective logging in the Amazon determined that “that nearly one-third of the areas that were logged selectively were completely deforested for grazing and other uses within four years…Sixteen percent of selectively logged forests were cleared within just one year”

Skiing Green

Lake Tahoe hotels and resorts rated on environmental efforts.

Lake Tahoe ski resorts receive environmental ratings.

An interesting article from the Associated Press discusses the Ski Area Citizens Coalition’s ninth annual environmental review.  According to the article, Mt. Rose received a typical rating for a Lake Tahoe ski resort:

With an overall B, Mount Rose’s categorical scoring was consistent with the majority of the resorts. The mountain on the southwest edge of Reno halfway to Lake Tahoe earned an A for habitat protection and B for watersheds, but a D for doing too little to address climate change and an F for environmental practices.

Check out the article here.

Divers Concerned About Emerald Bay

3 Minutes on the Fourth of July

3 Minutes on the Fourth of July

Here’s an interesting post from the Tahoe Divers Conservancy.  They are alarmed at the growth they are witnessing in the shallows of  Emerald Bay.

Scientists believe the growth being found in the near shore areas of Emerald Bay are the same algae found in the streams, and not the invasive species found near the marinas.  Due to the warm drought conditions this year, algal growth is on the increase.

Extremes: Ice and Otherwise

Silver Lake. Carson Pass. California.

Silver Lake. Carson Pass. California.

If you missed Extreme Ice on NOVA, it’s worth checking out on their website.  This is an interesting use of still photography to tell a larger story, in this instance glacial retreat and global warming.

In stark contrast to this message, is the denying of the validity of global warming, as discussed here in the New York Times.  One has to wonder about their motives.  As a conservative Republican friend of mine says, “Even if you don’t believe in global warming, environmental concerns are going to create a lot of jobs and will be central to the country’s competitiveness.

For a fascinating read on the Arctic, pick up Barry Lopez’s “Artic Dreams.”  In this National Book award winner, Lopez covers the varied dimensions of the Arctic, including geography, wildlife, and  human occupation and exploration.  You’ll never look at ice the same after reading this book.  A review in the Guardian captures the book’s spirit. For more on Barry Lopez, visit http://www.barrylopez.com/ .