The University of California system is one of the great miracles of public management. Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego are all among the top 20 universities in the world; UCSF is one of the great medical centers; if Santa Barbara or Davis or Irvine were a flagship state university, it would be way better than most of its peers; and Santa Cruz, Riverside, and Merced are all more-than-respectable institutions. Aside from Berkeley, all of this greatness is the product of the past 60 years.

And we’re blowing it. The next round of budget cuts and tuition increases – the one that will follow the likely defeat of Proposition 30 – will be intolerable. And even if Prop. 30 passes, that provides a torniquet, not a transfusion. As Al Carnesale predicted, our ambition will slowly sink from being among the greatest universities in the world to being among the best public universities in the country. Financially, we will move – as other systems have – toward a publicly-owned set of self-supporting (in effect, private) universities, with much less access for the poor.

This is a matter of more than parochial interst. A great research university takes decades to build, but only years to destroy. The capacity represented by the UC system is a national asset, and one not easily replaced. Great research universities that also have graduating classes of 30% first-generation college-goers are simply unheard of. (U.Va., where I’m teaching this term, is a fabulous place, with terrific students. And 91% of those students have college-graduate parents. Social mobility? What’s that?)

I think it’s time for the University to stop relying on California’s feckless politicians and go straight to the voters. They don’t like spending money. They don’t like taxes, except on other people. But they do like the idea of a great university system. And they strongly dislike spending money on prisons, even as they demand toughness on crime. (I hope you weren’t looking for consistency in voter opinions.)

Here’s a proposition that, I am convinced, would pass, if we could get it on the ballot. And we could collect enough signatures right on campus to put it on the ballot:

The State of California shall not in any year spend more on its prison system than on its universities.

“Universities” includes the Cal State system. Or you could phrase it:

Funds appropriated for the University of California shall not, in any year, be less than half the funds appropriated for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

This year CDCR will spend about $9B, and the appropriation for the UC system is $2.2B, scheduled to be cut back by about $500M after Prop. 30 goes down. So the proposition would more or less double state funding, which would allow some recovery of quality and a reversal of the huge tuition increases of the past few years.

I’ve been pushing some version of this for about three years now, and my colleages get all goo-goo on me and refuse, on principle, to discuss the idea. After all, they say, government-by-proposition has ruined California.

Well, so it has. But if the institution is worth defending – which I fervently believe – then this is one of the times when we must rise above principle, and just do what’s right.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.