California’s public university systems, often ranked among the best in the nation, symbolize the state’s opportunities — and can also serve as a microcosm of some of its most pervasive challenges, such as bridging economic and racial divides.
Monday marked the start of the third week of strikes at all 10 University of California campuses, where 48,000 unionized academic workers — who conduct much of the system’s teaching, grading and research — are calling for significantly higher wages, expanded child care subsidies, enhanced health coverage and other benefits they say are necessary to keep up with the sky-high cost of living in the Golden State.
And the ramifications for UC are mounting as final exams approach, with some campuses set to end classes as early as Friday: Hundreds of influential faculty members announced a work stoppage Monday, writing in an online pledge of solidarity that they “will be exercising their right to honor the picket line by refusing to conduct university labor up to and including submission of grades — labor that would not be possible without the labor of all other academic workers as well as university staff.”
The influential California Labor Federation, led by former state lawmaker Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, is also ramping up pressure on UC: Union members marched to the UC Office of the President on Monday to broadcast their support for academic workers.
- Sean Malloy, a UC Merced associate professor of history, told the Los Angeles Times: “If the only way we can have a world-class university is to pay poverty wages and have graduate students sleeping in cars, that’s not a sustainable or ethical model.”
- Nevertheless, others warned that significantly raising academic workers’ wages could have negative unintended consequences, including higher student tuition, larger class sizes and universities hiring fewer academic workers or limiting the scope of their research.
Moving on to the California State University system: One of the state’s most selective public universities, Cal Poly SLO, enrolls 21,000 undergraduate students — just 146 of whom are Black, according to a stunning new report from CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn. Mikhail found that Cal Poly SLO is likely to trail all of the state’s public universities by several common measures of racial and social inclusion:
- It’s had the lowest percentage of Black undergraduate students among all Cal State and UC campuses for nearly two decades. This fall term about 0.7% of Cal Poly’s undergraduates are Black.
- It’s had the lowest share of Black freshman applicants of any Cal State and UC each year since at least 2011, even when compared to other selective universities and campuses removed from large population centers.
- It’s educated the smallest percentage of low-income students — those who get the federal Pell grant — of any UC or Cal State annually since 2008.
Mikhail spoke with multiple Black students about their experiences of confronting racism and isolation, ranging from being called the N-word by their white peers to being the only Black person in a class and feeling pressure to represent the whole community in group discussions.
But they also emphasized the strong sense of community Black students have created on campus — which some attributed to their decision to remain at Cal Poly instead of enrolling elsewhere.
The Cal Poly administration rebuffed Mikhail’s requests for interviews, instead emailing two responses totaling 1,900 words highlighting steps it’s taken to improve campus culture and attract more Black students. Measures include expanding financial aid programs, connecting donors with an independent organization to distribute scholarships specifically to Black students and hiring more faculty members experienced in matters of diversity, in addition to staff to respond to reported cases of bias.
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What’s up in Newsomworld?
Gov. Gavin Newsom returned to California on Sunday night from a family Thanksgiving vacation in Hawaii, his press office told me Monday. The office had previously declined to share details about the governor’s trip, announcing a new policy of not revealing information about his personal travels until after his return due to “safety concerns.” Nevertheless, on Thursday, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom posted a photo on her public Instagram account of her, Newsom and their four kids standing on a lawn overlooking the ocean, palm trees and what seems to be a golf course — presumably in Hawaii. The governor’s press office did not respond to a question about whether it had been determined that Siebel Newsom’s photo did not pose security concerns.
Meanwhile, Newsom’s possible presidential ambitions continue to make headlines: On Nov. 8, the night Newsom sailed to reelection, President Joe Biden called to congratulate him — and Newsom told Biden that he won’t run against him in 2024, Politico reports. But the news was met with some skepticism from California reporters: “Newsom declined to answer any questions from the Capitol press corps after his victory speech on election night, then he spent the evening with a DC columnist to prove his disinterest in national politics,” CalMatters political reporter Alexei Koseff tweeted.
California environment updates
It’s beginning to feel a lot like winter in California: Ahead of this week’s forecasted sub-zero temperatures, the Los Angeles County public health department issued a cold weather alert encouraging children, the elderly and people with disabilities to take extra precautions to stay warm. Both Southern and Northern California are bracing for storms later this week, including a snowstorm that could lead to total white-out conditions and road closures in the Tahoe area.
But other areas of California climate news are heating up:
- Today, the Newsom administration is set to hold a hearing on California’s gas price spikes and oil industry profits. But none of the oil companies invited to testify plan to do so, according to KCRA: “The politicization of this issue by Governor Newsom, heightened by the misleading information he released and commented on relating to our (2022 third-quarter) earnings, precludes us from participating in this hearing,” Paul Davis of PBF Energy wrote in a letter to the California Energy Commission. Newsom tweeted Monday, “Oil companies saw a 1700% increase in profits this year — while you paid record prices. Now, these same companies refuse to explain why they are sticking consumers with the bill. Pathetic.”
- As California stares down its fourth straight year of drought — echoed in a Monday warning to cities and farms from federal water managers — the economic losses for the agricultural industry are mounting: Between 2019 and 2022, statewide acreage of irrigated crops fell by nearly 10%, costing the industry $1.7 billion and slashing more than 19,000 jobs, according to a new report from UC Merced, UC Davis and the Public Policy Institute of California. Meanwhile, California’s rice-harvested acreage this season fell to its lowest level in nearly 70 years due to “a severe and prolonged drought, low reservoir levels and water restrictions,” according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- California is set to receive $250 million in federal funding to help clean up and restore the Salton Sea, the state’s largest lake and one of its worst environmental blights, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Monday. Most of the money is contingent on several water districts following through on their plans to pull less water from the parched Colorado River, according to the Associated Press.
- California’s push to dramatically expand organic farming would cause food prices to skyrocket and organic farm profits to tumble, a new study commissioned by the California Farm Bureau found. While environmental justice advocates say the effort will improve public health by reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers, the farm industry contends it amounts to a regressive tax on poor families. That’s the same argument the Public Advocates Office made in response to state regulators recently approving a $1 billion program for electric vehicle infrastructure. The grants will be paid for by California ratepayers, some of whom will earn money back through rebates, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Are Californians with adverse experiences getting care?
More than 60% of Californians have gone through at least one adverse childhood experience — such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse or growing up in a home with substance abuse, mental illness, incarceration, parental separation or domestic violence, according to a state report. Research shows that the higher the number of adverse experiences, the higher the risk of chronic health or mental health conditions later in life — which is why California is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into programs to help doctors screen patients for adverse experiences. But, two years after the state launched a program to cut in half the number of kids with adverse childhood experiences in a generation, it’s failing to track whether patients receive the follow-up services or support they might need, CalMatters’ Elizabeth Aguilera reports.
- Nadine Burke Harris, California’s former surgeon general who helped launch the initiative: “We don’t just want to know if they are screened. We want to know if they got the services they needed.”
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