SJSU in the News: L.A. Times Columnist and San Jose State Alumnus Steve Lopez Owes “Big Debt” to SJSU for “Invaluable Education”

Honored SJS alumnus criticizes Cal State cuts as blocking path of upward mobility

Published on the San Jose Mercury News website May 5, 2011.

By Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times

Apparently they weren’t kidding. But not until I was handed a cap and gown at the San Jose State honors convocation Friday night, and we began the processional toward the stage, did I believe that my wife would crawl into bed that night with a doctor.

Wait a minute. I suppose I should clarify.

For reasons that may never add up, I was awarded an honorary doctorate at San Jose State, my alma mater.

I guess it comes down to whom you know. A California State University trustee named Bob Linscheid is from the same corner of the San Francisco Bay Area I’m from. I bumped into him last year in Chico, where he volunteers at a center whose mission is to help troubled souls get back on their feet.

Linscheid, who knew something about my work in that field, put in a nomination and I’m guessing nobody had the sense to look at my college transcripts. So there I was Friday evening, feeling and looking a little like Groucho Marx as professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff in the movie “Horse Feathers.”

It wasn’t the degree I was after — the word “honorary” invites understandable ribbing even from loved ones — but a chance to say something about the California state budget crisis and its effect on higher education. As I noted in a recent column, my parents didn’t go to college but my dad had union jobs that paid enough for my parents to send me to a community college for two years followed by San Jose State.

My father and mother, Tony and Grace, were my guests Friday night and it felt good to officially thank them from the stage.

In my day, the two pathways to upward mobility were living-wage jobs for unskilled laborers and the availability of a college degree at an affordable price.

“This has been the engine that has driven the California economy,” I told 3,000 honors students and their families in a San Jose State auditorium.

Decade after decade, students of all races from poor and middle-class families across the state and around the world — often the first in their families to attend college — earned degrees and became teachers, nurses, engineers and entrepreneurs.

And now that great institution is being turned into a mediocrity by budget cuts. State universities have been forced to limit course offerings and dump staff while jacking up fees, and they’ve turned away students in droves while preparing for the possibility of even deeper cuts.

You don’t need a doctorate to see the lunacy in that. As Linscheid noted, the Public Policy Institute of California has projected a recovering economy, not too far down the road, that will create more jobs for college graduates than California can supply.

In 1990, Linscheid said, the Cal State budget and the state prison budget were roughly the same. Today, the state prison budget is only about 10% less than the Cal State, UC and community college budgets combined. Meanwhile, the number of inmates has shot up from 25,000 to 175,000 over the last 20 years, thanks largely to law-and-order initiatives backed by the prison guards union. The union bankrolls politicians like Gov. Jerry Brown, too, and reaps huge benefits, but they come at the expense of school funding.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block recently wrote in The Times that of the 42 Republicans in our state Legislature, 29 are products of California’s public system of higher education. They got a great bargain, but not a single one of them has supported a Brown proposal — balance the budget half with cuts and half with a temporary extension of existing tax increases — that would maintain a barely acceptable level of quality in the Cal State system and help students avoid crippling tuition hikes.

Our priorities are out of whack, state tax structure has been screwed up since Proposition 13, and a disengaged public wakes up only often enough to make things worse with ballot initiatives. As wealth becomes all the more concentrated at the top, we need more than ever a state university system that can help balance the playing field.

“I think it’s going to jeopardize the workforce,” interim San Jose State President Don Kassing said of continued budget tightening.

I’m sure there are always a few more smart cuts to be made at San Jose State and cost-saving consolidation possibilities throughout the system. But Kassing said an expected $500-million trim for Cal State could double if Sacramento doesn’t square its budget soon, and that would amount to nearly one-third of the total budget.

Like other Cal State presidents, Kassing has been forced into the street, hat in hand, to beg for private donations. But those are usually earmarked for specific programs and don’t pay basic costs.

“My fear,” Kassing said, “is that we’ll end up looking like Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, where state universities have become so unbelievably expensive. It will have a real impact in our state and it will narrow the number of kids who can afford to go to school.”

I knew things were bad when Kassing told me I had to give back the cap and gown Friday night. I negotiated a deal to keep the cap.

I owe a big debt to my parents, to California and to San Jose State for an invaluable education. And although I’m not sure Dr. Lopez’s diagnostic abilities are honed yet, I feel safe in saying that those who favor more cuts in higher education need to have their heads examined, if not their hearts.