The People's University: A History of the California State University

The UK could learn lessons from a fascinating history of California's universities, finds Alan Ryan

September 30, 2010

This book cannot be recommended to anyone looking for a good read on the beach. It is almost 700 pages, and written in the measured prose that university presidents must employ if they are to keep the peace, keep their jobs and serve their institutions as they intend. For all that, The People's University is fascinating and Donald Gerth is better equipped to write it than anyone. He arrived in 1958 at what was then San Francisco State College as a faculty member and an administrator in charge of admissions. The following year, the incoming governor, Pat Brown, launched the process that resulted in the plan that governed the development of higher education in California for the next 40 years.

For those who are not familiar with the differences between the ways in which the 50 states organise and fund public higher education (there are innumerable differences, many of them astonishing to a British observer used to the uniformity of UK higher education), it is useful to know before opening this book that California is unusual in having a three-tier system: the 10 campuses of the University of California (UC) system at the top; the 23 campuses of the California State University (CSU) system in the middle; and beneath them the 109 community colleges. Each system has its own board, although the community colleges are substantially governed by locally elected boards of trustees. The creation of this system was the achievement of the Master Plan for Higher Education, agreed in 1960 and much modified since.

Gerth worked on the Master Plan, and became an expert on the governance of higher education. He took office as president of California State University, Dominguez Hills, in 1976, and from 1984 to 2003 was president of California State University, Sacramento. He is obviously a man who, by temperament as well as the necessities of the job, likes to have everything filed, docketed and easy to access. This pays off in a work of this sort, not least in giving the curious reader a real insight into the complexities of public higher education, Californian politics, the changing tastes and allegiances of students, and the extent to which bureaucratic systems are vulnerable to the vagaries of individual temperament.

As a piece of history, it will amuse anyone familiar with Clark Kerr's wonderfully self-regarding accounts of the creation of the Master Plan. Kerr, who was president of the University of California system from 1958 to 1967, was bent on achieving one thing above all: to ensure that the University of California did not have its mission (or funding) diluted by any scheme that allowed what were then known as the California State Colleges to join the UC system or turn into research-oriented, doctorate-awarding institutions. Since the Master Plan did preserve the differentiation of mission that he wanted, he might be said to have got what he wanted. Viewed from below, however, he was much less the master of events than his accounts suggest; when he threatened to break off negotiations and scuttle the Master Plan, the politicians reminded him that they could pass whatever legislation they chose, and he would have to put up with it.

The Master Plan was substantially "about" the California State Colleges - which then were many fewer in number than now. They had been created in a piecemeal fashion since the end of the 19th century, and were primarily established to meet the need for teacher training, although they had over time branched out into professional and vocational education in other areas. Post-1945, more of the faculty had acquired research interests, often in applied and vocational fields.

They began to hanker after running doctoral programmes, but could not. The colleges also had no structure to match the Regents of the University of California. They were individually subject to the state board of education, which appointed their presidents - who generally ran their colleges in the autocratic fashion in which high school principals ran high schools. Not that their lives were enviable, since they were subject to line-item financial management by the state, and Californian bureaucracy at the time was no swifter or more flexible than it is now.

The Master Plan had to reconcile the irreconcilable, and did a strikingly good job of it. The sticking point was, and has remained, the ability of the CSU schools to award "independent" doctorates; the possibility of "joint" doctorates has been available for half a century without take-up, and the only free-standing doctorate yet agreed has been in education - there being a demand for the DEd, and the CSU having more than a century's experience of teachers' education. Subscribing, as I do, to the Kerr view of the need for differentiated missions in higher education, I am not sure that the CSU lost anything much. The campuses I have visited are lively, the staff are unoppressed, and the students are getting an excellent undergraduate and master's level education. Nor are they "teaching-only" institutions; they are just not research-led or prestige-obsessed.

It is hard not to think that many of the UK institutions that were transformed from teacher training colleges into bankrupt and unhappy universities would have done better with the closer supervision and tighter control that the CSU offers. Gerth's history of life after the Master Plan ends on a sombre note; financial pressures make a new Master Plan necessary, and political dissension makes it almost impossible to achieve. Otherwise, it is very much "mission accomplished", in spite of a good deal of tumult - does anyone remember the Symbionese Liberation Army? - and administrative infighting, and the problems of adapting to the fast-changing demography of California.

There are some other thought-provoking elements in the Master Plan that universities and science minister David Willetts might like to cast his eye over. The Master Plan also had to consider ways of providing increased enrolments without bankrupting the state. The answer was ingenious. Both the UC and the CSU systems were to admit 60 per cent of their students to the two final years of the undergraduate degree, and only 40 per cent through the freshman intake. The first two years could be taken in the junior - now community - colleges. Gerth provides an astonishing table that shows that in most CSU schools around 80 per cent of graduating students have come through community colleges. It's only a thought...

The People's University: A History of the California State University

By Donald R. Gerth

Institute of Governmental Studies Press

694pp, $35.00 ISBN 9780877724353

Published 13 January 2010

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