It’s Time to Save the University of California

I view myself as a product of the University of California.  UC is the reason I came to California and it’s one of the reasons I’ve continued to make this state my home for the past 12 years. My wife and I moved to California in 2000 when I was awarded a Lawrence Fellowship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (part of the UC campus system) and my wife was offered a postdoc position in Neuroscience at UCSF.

For the next 7 years, I ran a nanomaterials research group at LLNL, during which time, I had the opportunity to form academic research collaborations with faculty at UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Riverside and UC San Diego.  In 2005, I decided I wanted the next stage of my career to focus on commercializing the science and technology that I had been researching.  So again I turned to UC and I enrolled in the Executive MBA program at UC Berkeley.  For the last 5 years as a Partner at Physic Ventures, I’ve been investing in startups developing technology in the field of Sustainability.  I maintain my close ties with UC, guest lecturing at Haas, working with UC faculty to commercialize UC inventions, and hiring numerous UC science, engineering and business graduates into the startups that Physic Ventures invests in.

So over the last 12 years, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with UC as a student, a researcher, a teacher, and now an investor in the California economy.  From all these vantage points I can state categorically that UC is one of the greatest University systems the world has ever known.  It sits at the pinnacle of academic achievement, it is an engine of innovation for the California and US economy, and it currently provides a world class University education to over 222,000 students.

UC isn’t the only world leading University that I’ve experienced.  As an undergraduate and PhD student, I was fortunate to receive one of the best University educations available. I studied Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge and then I stayed at Cambridge to complete a PhD in semiconductor Physics. Like UC,  Cambridge is a public University, but no one would argue that it’s anything but elite. Cambridge admits a mere 3000 students per year, only half of which come from public schools.  In contrast, the UC system is a truly public system, offering the opportunity of a world class education to all California high school students.  It specifically offers a local eligibility program that guarantees admission to a UC campus for the top 9% of students in a high school class.  This is what really impressed me with UC when I arrived in California.  It is one of a handful of University systems that maintains elite academic standards and offers broad availability to hundreds of thousands of California students.

So why am I writing this homage to UC?  I’m writing because I believe that state imposed UC budget cuts risk fatally damaging one of the crown jewels of the state that I’ve adopted as my home.  According to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is on the board of trustees of the UC system,“This is the code red we’re in. We’re not cutting into muscle or tissue, we’re cutting into artery.”

In response to initial budget cuts in 2007, UC took all the usual actions.  It increased tuition rates, it increased the percentage of high fee paying out-of-state students, it cut less popular classes and instigated a faculty pay freeze.  Now there is nowhere left to cut.  However, every year for the last 5 years, state support for UC has continued to decrease, tuition rates have increased way above the rate of inflation, and academic salaries continue to decline compared to those at other institutions.

It seems like every month I’m hearing about another former UC colleague who has left for a better salary, larger research budget, or fewer bureaucratic constraints at another University system.  Every year we hear about more middle class students declining places at UC in favor of less rigorous academic institutions with more affordable tuition rates.

Watching this decline of UC is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  It is simply a matter of priorities.  As always happens, politicians make funding decisions based on short term political calculation.  The impact of this slow bleeding of UC will not be obviously apparent in the short term, but rather it will be felt over decades.  As fewer middle class students can afford UC tuition rates, academic standards will decline and California’s work force will slowly become less competitive and innovative.  As world class researchers leave UC for Texas, Massachusetts, or perhaps Asia, this research based catalyst for innovation in CA will move to other states, along with the job creation and economic value that follows.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to California’s fiscal troubles, but I’ll leave you with one statistic as food for thought.  In a recent blog, Fareed Zacharia pointed out:
In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons, versus $5.7 billion on higher education. Since 1980, California has built one college campus; it’s built 21 prisons. The state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year.”
Clearly something went wrong with our state’s priorities and it’s about time this crisis got the attention it deserves.