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Reason Foundation

Private effort brings public university to desert

Adrian Moore
August 10, 2003, 3:29pm

A friend passed to me the interesting NY Times article below. Notice how much more quickly and effectively private actors and funding created a university compared to how long it would take the state. But, as my friend said, "Before you cheer too loudly, read the last sentence." New York Times Sun, Aug. 03, 2003 State college serves Palm Desert without state funds By Greg Winter PALM DESERT - Amid the bounty in the desert, awash in golf courses and gated communities, the absence of a university was like a leak in the well, draining away what little youth the area had. The grandchildren of Palm Desert's retirees, or the children of their maids and gardeners, would have to commute more than 120 dusty miles to the nearest university, and too few bothered to make the trip. Those who did go away rarely came back. "It was a very strange community, a heavenly place for retired people, but lopsided," said Betty Barker, a retired industrial designer. "Anyone who wanted an education had to go away and get it, and probably wouldn't return. It wasn't normal." So Barker and a local businessman, Richard R. Oliphant, teamed up to do something highly unusual: They brought a state university campus to their town, through sheer fund-raising might, without the state putting up any money at all. When Oliphant broached the idea of opening a permanent university with Cal State's leadership at least 15 years ago, he was greeted with plaudits, shared concern -- and a skewer of reality to pierce his optimism. "If the state had to pay for it, it would have taken decades, at least," said Albert Karnig, president of Cal State San Bernardino, which runs the Palm Desert campus. "In fact, it might not ever happen." Enter Barker, the town's unofficial cultural ambassador. Piling municipal money on top of private donations, she and Oliphant raised $9 million in 90 days for the first building, which was completed last year. The next $10 million took a little longer, but ground has been broken on a second building and a third is on the way. Now, on a 200-acre stretch the city set aside in 1999, a campus of 1,000 students is up and running, and the two private citizens are still raising money to keep the construction going. "We're not in a depressed area by any means," said Jean Benson, the mayor of Palm Desert, one of three local towns to give money or land for the campus. All three have median incomes between $51,000 and $100,000. Difficult though it may be, other communities may have to take a cue from Palm Desert, state university officials nationwide say. The time for new public campuses may be over, at least until state budgets rebound. "With the trend that I see, whatever scale you look at it, the finances are going to float more toward local and regional sources," said Travis Reindl, director for state policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. One thing that is less certain is the state's ability to sustain the site as a full university, as opposed to the more modest branch that it is now. Once the Palm Desert campus enrolls enough students to officially stand on its own, the state will have to shoulder significantly more of the financial burden, which could hinder the university's ultimate independence. More info on the university.

Adrian Moore is Vice President, Policy


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