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Brian Murphy Testifies before Legislature on Review of State Master Plan for Higher Education

De Anza College President Brian Murphy, who from 1985 to 1989 served as the chief consultant to the California State Legislature Joint Committee for Review of the Master Plan for Higher Education, testified before the current joint committee on December 6.

Joint Committee for Review of the Master Plan for Higher Education
The Honorable Ira Ruskin, Chair

The text of his remarks follows

The Chair asked that I reflect on lessons learned from the legislative review of the Master Plan for Higher Education of the late '80s, and offer some reflections on the core issues that might emerge in this review.

Members of the Joint Committee are poised between crisis and long-term planning, between the immediacy of the budget and the opportunity to craft something that will last well beyond this moment. This work is one of the few times when members will have an opportunity to craft a part of history, when every impulse of “the building” is to pull you back to the crisis. It was almost poignant to see members of our joint committee in the late '80s see that this kind of review was one of the few times they might look beyond next week’s problems. I urge you to do the same.

Before getting to lessons—or warnings—let me share a few observations about the stakes here. It was useful, I found, when beginning a review, to return to first principles and ask what purposes are served by the Master Plan.

I. The Stakes

The Master Plan is, at first blush and without much reflection, an architecture, or an institutional framework for the distribution of public resources for the provision of a public good: education. It matters to remember that those who crafted the Master Plan sought the general advancement of the state and its people, and saw education as more than the provision of opportunity for the development of individual student careers or income or privilege, which it also does, of course.

The public purposes of the original Master Plan were three

  1. Economic growth in a post-war economy
  2. Social peace in a stratified society
  3. Democratic culture
Economic Growth

It is helpful to remember that Clark Kerr was a labor economist, and his intellectual work was focused on the development of industrial societies. In a nutshell, Kerr’s view was that the growth of the post-war economy depended upon dramatic increases in productivity, and that the provision of free, or near-free, higher education was the critical public investment without which the private economy could not grow or compete.

This is, of course, a view now widely shared both here and abroad. It is a view almost universally held by economists advising national economic policy in Europe, China, and in the U.S. China hopes to build several University of California-like systems (not an easy task, they will find); the European Union is devoting money and attention to the development of a more unified and robust continental system of higher education. They share a conviction that without investment in higher education you cannot compete in an international global economy.

President Obama gets it, too. He wants the United States to increase its share of the population having a degree or certificate from its current 39% to near 60% (or at least above Canada’s 53.5%). That will take an additional 157,000 degrees and certificates a year for the next decade. California just cost the nation two years with our cutbacks of this year. 

If the continued provision of absolutely top quality postsecondary education is the key to a robust post-industrial economy, then it has to be put bluntly: People who believe that the economy is better served by refusing to raise taxes and revenues in order to invest in higher education simply do not understand how advanced capitalism works.

Social Peace

If California’s system of higher education serves macroeconomic ends, it also dramatically affects the lives of individual students and their families. If, in addition to providing intellectual capital to the state, the system offers all the advantages of being educated to individuals, how then to ration access to it? How do we distribute access and have it appear fair?

This is an enormous issue, and one we grappled with in the late '80s, and once again sought insight from the founders of the system. The Master Plan sought to balance two radically different systems of access—one resolutely elite, however nominally meritocratic, in which only 12.5% of high school graduates would go directly to a great research university. This was the most restricted access of any public research university in the nation. On the other hand it offered access to the top third of high school graduates to a fine top-quality comprehensive university system, and then open access to the most robust community college system in the country.

This was, on the one hand, and as Kerr understood, a class compromise: the wealthy and the powerful would get to send their kids to great universities for free, on condition that they support free education for everyone else. And they did.

On the other hand, the social function of the system was precisely that it afforded opportunity beyond class determination, that students could begin in one place and end up in another. Transfer is the heart and soul of the Master Plan, if the differentiation of mission is the body mass and skeleton. Even if you did poorly initially, or lacked the advantages of the better high schools or the wealth that could buy tutors and support, or if you came late to the dance from another country and initially lacked the language skills, there was a place for you to try anyway.

If you review the master plan from any international and comparative perspective, that is, comparing it to the national systems of other countries, it is not the differentiation of function which is the genius of our system; it is the movement between the systems which is the genius. It is a system flexible enough that the ultimate social outcomes—especially when we live in a society with greater income disparity than virtually any other industrial society—seem fair.

Social peace comes from the widely distributed sense of fairness. Again, Europe is instructive. The largest social issue in contemporary Europe is “social cohesion,” or the ability of their societies to integrate across boundaries of class and, now, immigration and race. And the talk all over Europe is their need for an educational system which affords chances for those held out by social hierarchies they have not been able to penetrate. At virtually every conference or meeting on higher education reform, someone brings up the community colleges and wishes they’d invented them. Well, we did.

Democracy

The Master Plan was not crafted solely for the economy; it was also designed for the advancement of democracy. Our review of the Master Plan in the 80s was framed by the great demographic shift taking place in California, and the title we chose was “Education for a Multicultural Democracy.”

What did we mean? California was already a multicultural society. Lots of places are multicultural societies; India, Peru, Belgium, even South Africa under apartheid was multicultural. But what are the preconditions for a healthy multicultural democracy in which all our people have more than an abstract chance at access to power and privilege, in which there are not entire communities marginalized from power and opportunity?

Further, and most critically, most believe—indeed it is the premise of American education—that only a broadly educated people can sustain a democratic community, that only an educated people can truly govern in a democracy, especially when they are not bound together by religion or language or tradition. The Master Plan proffered education for the many in the belief, indeed commitment, that democracy could thrive only in a society in which privilege was not hereditary, in which access to power was not restricted to the few, and where the many had the knowledge and sensibilities enabling them to make democratic choices.

II. Lessons and Advice

If these are the issues, what might I add by way of advice as you proceed?

  1. First,  reaffirm the promise of the Master Plan, and do not compromise our future by reorganizing it to the current fiscal crisis. It is commonplace to insist that a recession is the last time to craft the future, because the tendency is all too often to “model down” to what you think we can afford. Don’t do that; it will be a disaster.
  2. Second, do not duck on the revenue question. In 1989, all we managed to insert was one pale sentence regarding the inability of the state to make good on its promises as long as we accepted the current limits of state revenue. We simply punted, and you cannot afford to do so. There are plenty of good ideas regarding state revenues; the California Tax Reform Association just issued a report of “ten policies that get $20 billion in revenues,” and I recommend it to you. There can be no affirmation of the promises of higher education absent a reform of the revenue system of the state.
  3. Never succumb to the easy argument that it’s all about the economy. If on the one hand there are excellent economic reasons to sustain the master plan—and there are—the Legislature must speak more broadly to the moral and social purposes we seek. If the state made a promise to earlier generations that they would be educated broadly and well, it is your responsibility to insure that the next generations enjoy that same promise.
  4. Finally, remember that what happens in here is not often seen or heard by the people. You will need a popular movement in support of this work if it is to be successful. You will need students and faculty and staff and families to bring pressure on you from outside these halls, and you ought do everything you can to welcome those voices when they appear.

Thank you.



Office of the President
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Contact: Brian Murphy
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Last Updated: 12/23/09