The University of California Protests

In confronting the state of California’s economy and infrastructure, one often finds it difficult to ignore the gathering dark clouds over California’s universities, most of which smell as conspicuously of controlled substances as they do of broken dreams.

Student protests over the manifold fee increases currently under implementation by the University of California Board of Regents have rocked the state recently, some of an almost 60’s-era magnitude. This Sunday, CNN reported that “Angry students took over Kerr Hall [at the University of Santa Cruz] after the University of California’s regents board approved a 32 percent increase in tuition Thursday.” Elsewhere, the Los Angeles Times reports that “The regents faced a large and noisy rally at the UCLA hall where they met, and demonstrations were held at several other UC campuses across the state.”

Obviously, the easiest trope for right-leaning observers to invoke whenever these sorts of demonstrations flare up is to call it all the product of nostalgia for the 1960s, attack professors for inciting it,  and go home after firing off a solid endorsement of the UC Regents for making hard decisions. This argument is, naturally, correct in some respects, but incomplete, as one has to parse the students’ demands more carefully. On the other hand, the obvious liberal response of siding with the voices of the future, no matter how naïve or misguided they are, is mistaken as well.

Without a doubt, the students are guilty of tactical excesses, not to mention an economically illiterate view of how universities work. As education policy expert Neal McCluskey recently pointed out:

California has typically charged students very little relative to both state taxpayer funding and national averages…net per-pupil tuition revenue (meaning revenue from tuition minus any state financial aid) in California has hovered around $1,200 over the last 25 years, and has only gone up about $18 per year. Meanwhile, state taxpayers have been shelling out around $7,300 per pupil per year. So state taxpayers have been furnishing the vast majority of funding for California college students, and students have done very little to make up the vast gulf between what they pay and what taxpayers shell out.

According to this line of argument, the students are guilty of acting overly entitled when, in fact, they have been stealing the money of taxpayers to finance their education, and as such, owe the fee increases to California itself.

To a certain extent, this argument is true, but it cannot be treated as the sole causal factor in the decline of California’s education system. McCluskey himself recognizes this, for he points out in a separate blog post that “we know where much of the precious investment in Cal was going — to subsidize sports.” In other words, administrative malfeasance is as much to blame as overindulgence for students.

 And indeed, if one actually takes the time to read the demands by students at UC Santa Cruz, the students know this, even if they remain willfully ignorant of their own complicity in the budget crisis. Naturally, given the campus’ location in Santa Cruz, many of these demands are conventional left-liberal bromides, but a few odd bits of heterodox thinking stand out. Specifically, demands two and three, which read respectively, “Stop all current construction on campus” and “UC funds and budget are made transparent,” are hardly the sort of thing one expects to hear from the Left these days. These demands are good, old fashioned fiscal conservatism of the kind California badly needs, and certainly the kind the universities could profit from.

The lesson that should be drawn from these interesting little nuggets of sense in what is otherwise an avalanche of rehashed 1960s brouhaha is clear – that there are students who possess a sensible view within the ranks of the otherwise oblivious protestors. This fact ought to give each and every critic of the protests pause, for it is surely both illogical and unjust to condemn the intelligent ideas along with the foolish ones simply because the tactics employed by those who espouse these ideas justifiably touch a nerve. The protests should doubtlessly be put down, but one only hopes that, in their zeal to put the kids in their rightful place, those with concern over the California budget will not also snuff out the few points of light.