Yesterday I participated in a conversation hosted by the Governor’s office on the Master Plan for Higher Education. It was a bit of a “Who’s Who in California higher education,” with representation from the segments, state agencies, advocacy groups, major foundations, and the research community.  It felt like a meeting of old friends in many regards, albeit elevated by the stature of meeting in the Governor’s quarters.

After a round of introductions that included what each participant thought as a child they wanted to be when they grew up, the frame for the day was set by a presentation that argued that the Master Plan needs to be viewed as a historical document. We at California Competes wholly agree with this view, as we have noted in our brief on the Master Plan  and in various presentations .  In California we tend to think of the Master Plan as a document that “set up” our higher education system, rather than seeing it as a compact or set of agreements that allowed our higher education segments, in all their diversity, to coexist peacefully. Still, these agreements from 1960—some codified in law while others are not—could not possibly speak to the range of sticky issues that the colleges face today, especially in an era of increasing enrollments stretched against decreasing state allocations.

The zinger of the day came when someone in the room suggested that maybe it was time to “blow up the system” and start again from scratch.

 While the idea of doing so seems a pipe dream, the fact that such words were uttered spoke to the fact that, even for California’s most informed and engaged higher education stakeholders, something fundamental about the system is not working.The central problem that higher education needs to solve is poverty and growing income inequality. Without solving that, we’ll inevitably continue to have labor market imbalances and social dislocations that destabilize our state. 

The impulse to “blow up the box” does not mean that there are no deeply vested interests to preserve the status quo. But as a whole, there was tacit acknowledgment that starting over could mean that students could be better served, institutions could be better supported, and the state’s interests could be better met.

Over the course of the next six months, the Select Committee on the Master Plan for Higher Education, chaired by Assembly member Marc Berman, will continue to lift up many substantive ways in which the Master Plan could be improved.  While this knowledge is important, perhaps more important is the work that will be done to help the legislature understand what the Master Plan is, and what it isn’t.  The ten formal and informal reviews of the Master Plan to date, conducted over a 50-year period, have identified the main issues that need to be dealt with and the range of solutions for addressing them.  I hope that the Governor’s impending report combined with the eventual report of the Select Committee, will build the political will to embolden the next legislature and administration do something about it.