Envisioning a State of Learning: Conference Summary and Observations on the California Master Plan for Higher Education

November 2003


“The American philosopher John Dewey once wrote that the most notable distinction between living and inanimate things, is that the former maintain themselves by renewal,” reflected CSUS President Donald Gerth as the 14th annual Envisioning California Conference—Envisioning a Higher State of Learning, Moving California’s Master Plan for Higher Education into the 21st Century—drew to a close.

“That in brief is the challenge of higher education in California. We must move forward in a process of renewal, renewing the Master Plan,” he said. “Hopefully the debate that this will cause, will be a process of renewing our institutions, all of our institutions of learning. Renewing our commitment to the role of higher education in a democratic society, and in the new California is a very high priority. I hope this conference has contributed to that very necessary renewal process.”

The extent of the conference’s contribution to the renewal of higher education in California remains, perhaps, to be seen. But it did generate some pretty intense debates, and shined a bright light on the many problems, perceived or real, plaguing California’s colleges and universities today.

It dealt with weighty issues such as accountability, admissions, governance, planning, the balance between academic and vocational learning; but also included more lighthearted discussions of universities in literature and campus architecture.

At the Sacramento Convention Center on September 26 and 27, 2002, attendees had their choice of 15 sessions featuring 66 speakers including educators, administrators, employers, politicians, consultants, researchers, advocates, and journalists.

Some of what they heard:

  • The 1960 Master Plan served generations of students well, but isn’t helping to solve the deep systemic problems facing higher education in California today;
  • California government today seems incapable of meaningful planning and developing constructive policies affecting higher education;
  • Admissions criteria is a more critical topic than ever, as more students compete for scarce space, and some groups are still effectively shut out;
  • The educational system fails dismally at teaching students specific vocational skills which could help them obtain good jobs;
  • The boundaries between California’s higher education segments have produced a diverse high quality system, but have caused a lack of cooperation and collaboration for which students have paid a high price;
  • California should make greater use of technology in higher education to better prepare students to deal with the Pacific Rim Economy and be part of California’s entertainment industry;
  • Campus architecture in California is an inconsistent mix reflecting a variety of times, missions and populations;
  • California higher education is failing badly at reflecting and serving its increasingly multi-ethnic population;
  • Policy makers demanding greater accountability in higher education should be careful what they wish for;
  • Faculty need to be more skilled in the art of teaching, and not just be experts in specific subjects;
  • California is too inward-looking and is failing to benefit from educational advances in other parts of the world;
  • Faculty make the process slower and less efficient, but play a necessary role in campus governance;
  • Leaders in higher education need a complex mix of personal qualities to be effective;
  • Universities make great venues for literary fiction because of the bizarre, eccentric people and things who populate them;
  • The preschool through higher education Master Plan breaks new ground by uniting educational segments; but, according to critics, fails to address key issues and needlessly expands government bureaucracy.

A number of themes recurred from session to session: an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the relative dearth of attention paid to higher education in the proposed preschool through higher education master plan, which focuses much more intensely on K-12 education; a sense that the 1960 Master Plan set up a good system but has created serious problems because of its rigidity; that California has great universities but little collaboration between them and an absolutely terrible transfer process; that California is enriched by a wonderful multi-ethnic diversity but sometimes has trouble dealing with it equitably on campuses; that higher education in California is too inward-looking and the rest of the world is passing us by; and that visionary educational leaders—specifically, like former UC President Clark Kerr, whose name was invoked repeatedly and nostalgically—just don’t seem to be around any more.

But even as those themes recurred, discussions occurring simultaneously in adjoining rooms sometimes reached diametrically opposite conclusions. As when a panel on vocational education was collectively excoriating California’s educational establishment for an elitist bias that constantly favors university academics and shortchanges vocational education, while at the same time in the next room a panel on admissions was unanimously bemoaning the state’s failure to aggressively urge all students in California to pursue University degrees, and another on diverse cultural identities was accusing the community colleges of selling out to industry by stressing vocational training over academics.

Various panelists disagreed about questions of growth, whether new campuses are needed or not; and on the usefulness of master planning itself, whether it serves a valid long-range purpose or is soon rendered obsolete by rapidly changing circumstances.

Emotions ran the gamut: a lighthearted session on campus literature was hilariously funny at times; while discussions of the state’s complete failure to properly educate some groups of students brought out anger and cynicism.

Following are comprehensive reports on each of those sessions.

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