Gov. Jerry Brown has a long list of greatest hits.
He saw California through the lasting effects of the Great Recession and shored up billions in financial reserves to weather a future economic dip. He negotiated climate deals with leaders of other nations. He paved a path to revamp California’s aging infrastructure. He turned California into a sanctuary state to challenge unethical federal immigration practices. He backed bills reforming California’s broken criminal justice system. And lately, he has led a steady challenge to the presidency of Donald Trump.
Brown’s politics exude a peculiar combination of ambitious progressivism and stringent fiscal conservatism. The fourth-term governor has had a prolific political history. And come January, his 16-year tenure will finally come to a close.
Brown may be an example of how progressive politics can turn a financially crippled state into an energetic economy. But his governorship has resulted in numerous cutbacks in higher education funding and divestment from the state’s youth.
Be it vetoing bills that would provide essential guarantees for students, slashing state contributions to universities or forcing the University of California to overcrowd its largest campuses, Brown has proven himself a lousy educational investor.
The next governor has big shoes to fill – shoes Brown refused to wear at all.
Perhaps most telling of the governor’s higher-education legacy was a speech he gave at the California Chamber of Commerce breakfast this year. Brown remarked universities should be more like Chipotle restaurants: downsized to be more practical.
“They have so damn many courses because all these professors want to teach one of their pet little projects, but then you get thousands and thousands of courses, and then the basic courses aren’t available,” the 80-year-old politician said.
And that’s been the hallmark of Brown’s tenure: disregard for academic pursuit and a failure to understand the opportunities afforded by, and the need for, a college degree.
Brown, himself a classics student from UC Berkeley, politicized the education of future UC graduates. He threatened to withhold state funds on numerous occasions from the University for attempting to raise tuition fees in light of diminishing state funds. He curtailed the University’s financial independence by letting legislators dictate part of its budget. He bullied UC President Janet Napolitano into agreeing to a deal to admit 10,000 additional California residents – forcing campuses like UCLA and UC Berkeley to nearly exceed carrying capacity.
The governor’s provincial view of education even extended to legislation. While Brown was all too willing to open up the state’s budget reserves to invest $78.4 billion in K-12 education and a $2 billion bond in housing initiatives, both in this year alone, he refused to pass bills such as a 2016 assembly bill that would have created a state grant program to fund California universities’ mental health services.
Even apparently costless efforts for the state government were arbitrarily vetoed by the governor. State bills requiring additional reporting on the outcomes of assault investigations and minimum penalties for those found to have committed sexual assault, legislation requiring the UC and California State University provide on-campus access to abortion pills and legislation requiring state universities hire enough mental health staff met his disapproval.
Among his reasons: his belief that students could easily access off-campus facilities seven miles away and that universities should be given financial independence. Those are rich words coming from Brown.
Certainly, Brown has exercised a harsh pragmatism, which has helped him to steer California into the black and accumulate a multibillion rainy day fund. But the governor’s matter-of-factness came with a price: Students have seen increasing housing fees thanks to Brown’s enrollment ultimatums. The UC has raised tuition for California residents by nearly 6 percent and nonresident tuition by nearly 9 percent since 2016. Student fees have been jacked up to support mental health counseling and food closet services the state has turned a blind eye to.
So yes, California’s 39th governor ensured the state a future. But it came at the cost of countless students and the state’s youth.