If the director of a system dismisses the people that system is intended to serve, which is broken—the director, or the system?
In a stunning display of apathy, the University of California President Janet Napolitano was caught on a hot mic calling a student protest over tuition hikes “crap” on March 18, during the second day of a UC Regents Meeting at the University of California, San Francisco, Mission Bay.
The slip was uncovered through the livestream of the meeting, for at the time the students’ chants of protest prevented Napolitano’s comments from being heard by the other meeting participants. On the livestream though, her comments to UC Regent Chairman Bruce Verner can be heard loud and clear, with Napolitano stating, “Let’s go. We don’t need to listen to this crap.”
The “crap” Napolitano is referring to was a group of roughly 20 students who had stripped down during the public comment period to either undergarments or exercise attire. Many of the revealed articles of clothing sported phrases such as “student debt,” with the protest overall symbolizing the fact that UC students are already forced to figuratively give the shirt off their back to pay for their education.
After her slip was publicized, Napolitano made a reference to it in her opening statement at the start of the third day of the UC Regents meeting on March 19, stating “I was caught on a mic with a word that was unfortunate. So I want to just say I apologize for that.” I’m curious about the world Napolitano inhabits, because under no circumstances does that seem like an apology for the grievous error she was caught committing.
It’s not every day that such patent disregard is made so evident—and I’m not sure what’s worse: the fact that Napolitano apparently couldn’t care less about what the public university students she is supposed to serve deem important, or that tuition hikes at said institutions aren’t grounds for concern. Frankly, the damning part of the whole incident is the toxic combination. Not only does UC President Janet Napolitano think that student opinions are “crap,” but also, she has no regard for the sanctity of affordable higher education.
Up until 1970, attending any school in the UC system was tuition-free for California residents. Starting in 1970, however, a move towards student fees occurred: California residents needed to pay $450 to cover registration and “educational fees” for the year. Compared to today, though, such a cost seems almost farcical. According to the UC Santa Barbara Office of Financial Aid, a California resident undergraduate student today must pay $13,866 for tuition and campus fees. Even accounting for inflation using data published by the US government’s Consumer Price Index, that $450 in 1970 would only equate to roughly $2,722. Obviously, the UC is no longer free: there is a price, and it keeps rising at a cost to students. As of 2013, tuition became the largest source of income for the UC system, with students contributing nearly $3 billion in tuition for the 2012-2013 year, according to the released UC budget for said year. The state of California, in the same period, only contributed $2.4 billion.
The student protesters at the fated meeting were attempting to draw attention to the latest round of tuition hikes, voted on and approved at the Nov. 20 meeting of the regents, which will increase student fees by up to 5 percent for each of the next five years. The dream of being able to attain a high quality public education without saddling oneself with debt for one’s foreseeable future is unfortunately now a pipe-dream for many Californians. The tragedy is that accessible public education is what many believe made California great—but as the opportunity diminishes through funding cuts and tuition hikes, the future is dim.
Dimmer still is our system president, whose seems to serve little purpose aside from failing to serve or represent the students of the UC system. Napolitano recently garnered criticism following a statement to the California Assembly budget subcommittee on March 3, when she announced that the UC will cap in-state enrollment while still raising non-resident enrollment should a new budget with Governor Jerry Brown not be negotiated. This statement prompted a flurry of legislative proposals, with many California lawmakers questioning the ability of the UC to budget effectually for the benefit of California students—the people Napolitano was chosen to serve.
Education has been referred to as the great equalizer, the manner in which all people can elevate their status and find prosperity and happiness. While such a statement is essentialist in nature and fails to account for a host of socio-cultural elements, it remains a fact that receiving an education is a vital core component for succeeding in the US. The UC system has been heralded as the best system of public education in the US, with many UCs even credited for excellence at a global level, too. Yet said education is quickly becoming cost prohibitive to the “public” the UC system was created to serve. This, coupled with the fact that the current system president thinks so lowly of student voices, spells disaster for the future of the UC. It’s a tragedy in slow motion.