by Sigrid Bathen, special to The Bee published November 13th, 2009
Twenty-five University of California students and graduates from UC campuses were gathered around a long table in a windowless basement conference room in downtown Sacramento for a brown-bag lunch. On one side were 10 recent graduates, many working in and around the Capitol, who had participated in a popular public policy program – a program they say prepared them more than any other college experience for the realities of working in politics and public policy. Across the table at the recent gathering were 15 current students, many about to graduate with bachelor’s degrees from UC in such diverse fields as political science, mathematics, economics, sociology, psychology and literature.
The session was part of an intensive orientation at the University of California Center in Sacramento before students begin internships in state legislative and government offices, at nonprofits and lobbying and consulting firms. The grads were advising the new students on what to expect in their internships, how to get the most benefit from the experience. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” they said. And “show initiative.”
More than 500 students have completed the program since it began in 2004. But this gathering was “bittersweet,” as one student put it, because the fall-quarter class may be the last in a widely praised program that was abruptly suspended by UC President Mark Yudof in August, as UC officials struggle to balance a precarious budget. The action has generated a storm of criticism, and UC administrators are reportedly rethinking how they can keep the effective program in Sacramento.
One of the grads at the brown-bag lunch, Kelly Bradfield, came to the center as a “scholar-intern” in the summer of 2007; she was about to graduate from UC Berkeley with an English degree, specializing in gender and sexuality in literature. While considering a public policy career, she lacked practical experience. Placed in an internship with Planned Parenthood, she wrote a paper on the public policy aspects of mandatory vaccination for the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer and was later hired as a policy analyst at the UC Center. Echoing the views of other grads, she said the program “prepared me more than any other academic experience” for working in the Capitol.
Bradfield’s job and those of four other staffers, several adjunct professors and a visiting scholar were eliminated. Director Gary Dymski, who founded the center six years ago and taught many of its public policy classes, is teaching the current – and likely final – class but is expected to return to his tenured position as a UC Riverside economics professor.
Associate Director A.G. Block, a veteran Sacramento political editor who was hired in 2005 to oversee the center’s summer public affairs journalism internship program, remains as the center’s administrator. While the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism is one of the finest in the nation, UC has no undergraduate journalism major and offers few journalism classes; the intensive summer program was an effort to fill that gaping academic void.
University officials say the cuts to the UC Center saved the budget-strapped UC system $850,000, but those familiar with the center’s most recent proposed budget say it had been slashed to a bare-bones $650,000.
One block from the Capitol, the center served a rich mix of academic and public service functions and fostered an unusual sharing of public policy and media expertise among UC and California State University faculty, legislative and administration officials, nonprofits, lobbyists and other policy experts who participated in seminars on wide-ranging policy issues.
“It’s too valuable an institution to lose,” said Barbara O’Connor, a communications professor who heads the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at CSUS. She suggests UC administrators help “break down the silos” so ingrained in academic politics and work with CSU and the California Community Colleges to keep the center open.
State legislators and members of the UC Board of Regents have also reportedly urged Yudof to reconsider his decision. Rich Zeiger, chief of staff to Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, whose daughter was a UC Center intern and whose office employs another intern as a scheduler, said the UC Center is “one of the few programs that demonstrates to policymakers exactly what the university does – the teaching, the research and the public service. All are brought directly into legislators’ offices every day.” To abruptly discard that role is foolish, he added “particularly when UC relations with legislators are not the best.”
UC spokesman Peter King said the UC administration is engaged in “more detailed discussion” about the future of the center, and a decision will likely be made in December. UC Davis spokeswoman Maril Stratton confirmed reports that UCD administrators are having “initial discussions” with Yudof’s office about a possible “lead role” in maintaining the center.
Placing administrative responsibility for the center on one campus creates its own set of political hurdles and potential for inter-campus rivalries. “At the end of the day,” said Zeiger, “this needs to look to the students and the Legislature as it looks now – an independently functioning unit.”
Sigrid Bathen teaches journalism at California State University, Sacramento, and is a volunteer editor and mentor in the University of California Center journalism program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.