Sunday, October 18, 2009

UC Student Regent-Designate: "We've had the most number of students move to part-time this year."

By Jessie Lee

Jesse Cheng is an active and amiable fourth year student at the University of California - Irvine. The Cupertino-native is currently serving as a nonvoting regent designate on the UC Board of Regents, and has been appointed as Student Regent for the year 2010-11. Majoring in Asian American studies, he was previously chair of the Asian Pacific Student Association (APSA), intern at the Cross-Cultural Center, and Executive Vice-President of ASUCI. In this interview, Jesse explains the budget cuts and its effect on UCI through his understanding as a student and regent designate.

Q: What motivated you to join the organization [Board of Regents]?

A: It’s a difficult year for everybody. One of my mentors, Floyd Lai from the CCC, he always told me that during the good times, when you see a leader during good times, it’s great. When you him during bad times, time of crisis, you see his strength of character, and you see what’s his integrity like. To be real, I don’t really like this job very much, (Jesse says in a whisper, which he follows with a chuckle). It’s a tough job and you’re a trustee for the university. This is a very different position where you advocate and set the table- strength of character right there. Step up and be at that table, see the best thing you can do, and represent students from a different vantage point. And to think about the number of students- we’ve had the most number of students move to part-time this year. At the Registrar’s Office, they’re just like, “Man, everyone’s moving to part-time student.” They can’t afford [to be] full time students. And the part-time’s too don’t even know there’s a fee increase coming- 15% fee increases. We’re losing faculty, workers are saying they’re getting laid off. We laid off 32 groundskeepers, man. That’s thirty people who don’t have livelihoods losing jobs and they’re not going to find them anywhere else. To do something, to be at the table is a fortune to try and help out, because people are just trying to get through.

Q: Being closer to the situation, can you explain the budget cut in your understanding?

A: (Brief pause as Jesse thinks about where to begin) The state of California… screwed up real bad. The structure makes it real hard to budget for the state of California. And it turns out that almost 97% of the budget is already allocated. You can’t change it, you can’t move it; it’s called Permanent Allocation. And 3% of the budget is called Discretionary Income, and you can move it however you like. And it’s unfortunate, but UC happens to fall in the Discretionary Income, and they can move it however they like. When you need to make big cuts in the budget, when your income revenue starts to go down dramatically, or your economy really suffers, you can’t cut from the 97%. You have to cut from the 3%. We happen to hit that 3% cut. That means $800 million dollars shortfall for the UC. $800 million dollars is a 20% cut in how much the state gives us. We used to get paid $3.5 billion dollars. Now we get paid $2.6 billion. Imagine taking 20% off your body. It’s a huge cut. And that’s what the budget cuts we’re dealing with.

At this point Jesse reaches for a pen and a paper and begins to draw a rectangular diagram illustrating the budget shortfall.

The question is how are you going to fill that 20% cut? How do you want to get that $800 million dollars? One-third of it you get it from furloughs and layoffs. One third of it you get it from student fees, these fee increases that we’re seeing. And the rest of that one-third left, you get it from campus cuts. That’s where you see the quality of our education go down, because schools start cutting classes, forces us to cut our programs. The Student Academic Advancement Services SAAS just got cut. That’s the program that runs Summer Bridge, and helps first-generation [college] and transfer students. Not that it got cut, but it had to be transferred to different departments, because the dean of that division has no more money to run that program. That’s what budget cuts look like.

Q: Do you know anyone personally that got affected by the budget cut? Say staff, students?

A: Do you feel on campus this budget cut? From student organizations, I used to be in a lot of clubs. The beginning of the year’s so exciting for us because we always talk about, “Oh we’re going to get all these freshmen involved, we’re going to go hustle them.” And you can feel it on campus during Welcome Week; UCI’s always growing in spirit. But there is just less freshmen. We just didn’t get the same turnout to these clubs because we cut enrollment. We’re recruiting freshmen like, “Why do I only have 100 students here? I used to have 400,” because the other 300 got cut. So you can feel it on campus. Students on campus are dropping out, students are going part-time. A lot of my mentors who are staff and faculty are trippin’ because they have to take another job on the side on the weekends to work. It’s like, man, you work for the University of California, you shouldn’t have to do that. That’s tough, that’s not right. I guess that also motivates me.

Q: Have you yourself been affected by these cuts?

A: I’m lucky in my position, for the work I do we get compensated financially. But think about it. I’m trying to get to law school. Some professional schools, their tuition’s going up 60% in the next year. I think it’s like 62% for public health school for [example] Berkeley, and I’m going to have to graduate into that large tuition load. I’m in a small department; I’m in Asian American Studies. We’re not the largest department in the world, our classes get cut. I can’t find as many classes as I used to. And financial aid is less! Our financial aid packages are less this year. So we’re screwed both ways. Financial aid covers you if you’re $60,000 and below. If you’re right over that cut, man, you’re getting hit real hard. And I happen to be right over that cost. It’s like getting punched in the face.

Q: How have you been active with the budget cut issue? Have you been doing anything to express your opinion, or help out the student body?

A: I came in [Student Regents] when they’d just approved the budget cuts. So now they’re dealing with the aftermath. What are we going to do? Furloughs, fee increases, and right now we’re working on seeing if we can help fight the fee increases coming up on the budget crisis and making sure that staff and faculty are safe. But these things are like when you’re in a fight and you’re on the defensive, people are throwing punches on you. If six are on you, you’re just trying to stay alive. That’s what we’re doing now, “Oh fee increases? We’re going to dodge that.” It doesn’t solve the problem. The root problem is that you’re one on six- that you’re in a fight in the first place. We’re trying to double back right now: what can we do if we’re not going to get as much state funding? And so we’re on this commission called Commission on the Future. It’s a commission that seeks to create a new model for the University of California assuming that we don’t have as much state funding, and we’re not going to continue getting as much state funding as we did in the past. How are we going to keep the quality of our education up? How are we going to keep this accessible and affordable to students? What are our models? This is very inherent to this discussion. We’re trying to develop plans to address state budgetary issues and what can we do there. Who can we lobby, who can we influence, these kinds of things.

Q: You mentioned that you guys are fighting against these fee increases. How exactly are you guys going about to do these things, aside from what you mentioned, lobbying people. Would the system become privatized?

A: That would suck. We’re trying to stay away from the private school method. We’re adapting by saying “This budget year is over. For next budget year, we really need to get more state funding. We really need to push the state, and just speaking out against fee increase. Reminding people that fee increases are not the norm; we don’t have to continue to have these. Fee increases are coming November 14th and 15th (he emphasizes each date as he gently pats the table). We obviously will put up a real hard case over there. We’re Regents, so we vote on the fee increase; we’re obviously going to vote no. We’re trying to convince and talk to other regents, making sure that people know these fee increases are going to hurt students badly and affect their accessibility and affordability for the UC system. We’re lobbying for stuff like that.

Q: An online news and opinion source for higher education called Inside Higher Education stated in July that only 16% of the UC system budget is made up of state fees. How does that work in relation to the budget cuts? If it only makes up 16%, how would a 20%-decrease damage the whole system so severely?

Jesse once again begins drawing on a sheet of paper. This time a circle, and outlines a quarter slice.

A: It’s important to recognize that only this much [quarter slice] goes to education. Right now we have three medical centers, national laboratories, energy research, and more. A lot of this is research, medical things that don’t directly affect students in terms of our educational quality. This [ratio between quarter slice to rest of circle] is around $5 billion to $19 billion. One quarter is about educational funding- we call it Core Operating Funds. Unfortunately the rest of this is not covered by the state. The rest of this is self-sustaining or comes from federal grants and stuff like that. Only this quarter is affected by the state. So the $3.5 billion dollars funded this [Core Operating Funds]. And now we don’t have that, we only have $2.6 [billion]. This has grown much smaller. It’s because even though the state fund only funded 16% of our entire budget, when you’re talking about Core Operations like education, teaching facility, professors, it’s a much larger percentage. It’s an enormous percentage- it’s almost half I think, actually.

Jesse continues sketching to demonstrate the makeup of UC education costs under state and UC budget and student tuition. Section skipped because the visuals became somewhat difficult to convey through writing.

You’re not going to see medical centers necessarily or research labs close, because those are funded through different revenues like grants. But our educational mission is the one that’s really going to be- (he gestures a punch in the face).

I proceed to clarify the proportioning of the cost of attending a UC with Jesse, discussing information that may read as redundant to what was previously stated already.

If I’m doing some research and it’s really interesting to the federal government, they’re going to pay for it. But the problem is, if they pay me like, $5 million dollars, that can only go to my research. I can’t redistribute that money over here [Core Operational Funding]. No matter how many research grants we get, that’s not going to help the issue we’re dealing as students. It’s not going to help lower our fees.

Q: How much influence do the Student Regents actually have on the Board of Regents?

A: That’s a tricky question. They really value student input and student perspective. When we say things, they definitely listen. They definitely care about the student perspective. So in that sense, we have a lot of influence under opinion. Do we shape or directly change anything? I don’t know, but they definitely care a lot about the fact that students are on the board. I like to think that we do help inform their decisions by offering a different perspective that they might not have.

Q: Are there any difficulties by being in the middle, where you have students and the board. How do you approach that part where it’s kind of like the gray area in between with this job?

A: We take it one day at a time. It’s difficult to be in the middle. As a regent, what your role is, word for word, you are a fiduciary trustee of the UC. We’re accountable to all parts of the University of California. Research, TA’s, grad students, undergrads, faculty, staff, workers, professors, whatever, whoever else, facilities, managers. We’re responsible for all of them. We bring and come from the student perspective. I sincerely believe that in the larger picture, in the root cause of things, what’s good for students is good for the University of California. What’s good for the UC is also good for the students. So suddenly it’s not that difficult being in the middle. You just have to remember you have to look at the root causes of things and the larger picture. Understand that we’re all kind of in the same boat, the UC boat. If someone pokes a hole, then we’re all going to sink, and there are no life rafts, and no one else can swim.

Q: What do you think lies in the future? What can we expect from these cuts, fee increases?

A: (brief pause) I don’t know. No one really knows. This is unprecedented, this has not happened before, which is good and bad. Bad ‘cause no one knows what to do; good because anything could come out of this. It’s important to view this as an opportunity in crisis. This is the opportunity to make the university a survival institution- a tough institution to go through deep cuts like these and still be okay. This is also the opportunity to bring the attention back to the public about the UC: how much we do for the university, how much we do for the state, what benefits we give to the rest of the state. Reminding them there’s opportunities in crisis. That’s why the Commission on the Future, formed by the Chair of the Board of Regents, Regents Gould, and President Yudof, will be able to create a model for the university going after these things. From the workers to the staff to the students to the faculty to the mentors to the president to the Board of Regents, and to the state of California, people care about this and the system and the students. I’m an optimist, too. I think everything will be okay in the end. But, I’m not going to front-leg. There are going to be tough times ahead, and this is probably, not the beginning. This is motivation for being Student Regent: we’re just trying to do our best to make sure people are okay, and protect the people of the university.

Despite the current state of our economy and budget crisis, Jesse Cheng remains optimistic about the challenges ahead. Whatever the consequences may be, the process will be rough, with students, faculty, and their family at the stake. However, this is not one individual’s responsibility. Rather, California inevitably needs to unite as one in order to secure a better future for higher education and a better future for generations to come.

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