Students are justifiably angry over my recent proposal to raise their fees by nearly a third over the next two years. I’m angry too. As an educator who has dedicated my career to the incredible promise of public education, it pains me to see this uniquely American institution under assault. This country’s land grant institutions — of which the University of California is the finest — represent a contract between the states and their namesake universities to educate outstanding students, regardless of their ability to pay, so that they may go on to serve the public and advance society’s interests.

We at the University of California have upheld our end of the deal: giving students of all backgrounds a world-class education, generating life-changing knowledge (we earned our 56th and 57th Nobel prizes this month), providing medical care and contributing to our state’s cultural, scientific and economic life. Meanwhile, our partner, the state, has been systematically divesting from the University. In 1990, we received the equivalent of $15,860 in today’s dollars from the state per student; that figure is now $7,730. In other words, we have half as much in state funds to spend per student as we did 20 years ago.

This long-term trend, on top of the current fiscal crisis, leaves us with a poor set of options. The one thing I am not willing to allow is for this great University to slide into mediocrity and devalue the degrees you work so hard to earn. For that reason, as painful as it is, I have asked all members of the UC community to share the burden brought on by our state’s crisis. It’s the only fair way out. You, regrettably, are being asked to shoulder part of the load through increased fees. Our faculty and most staff are enduring salary cuts, increased workloads and, for many, the loss of their jobs through layoffs and restructuring.

I have a plan to get us out of this mess and to put our University on the road to recovery.

We start with a commitment not only to preserve, but to enhance our financial aid program. At least a third of the revenue generated from the proposed fee increases will be set aside to ease the impact on students with financial need. Next month, I will ask the Regents to expand the number of students who qualify for our Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which covers all system wide fees for students with family incomes under $60,000.

For families with incomes under $180,000, the federal stimulus package provides for each student tax credits of up to $2,500 for four years. Nearly three-quarters of all undergraduates whose parents are in this income category will be able to cover the total 2009-10 fee increase, including the proposed mid-year hike, through increases in UC grants, Cal Grants, Federal Pell Grants and federal tuition tax credits.

We will also dramatically increase the amount of money available for scholarships, and I’ll have more to say about that very soon. UC serves more low-income and first-generation students than any research university in the country, and I intend to keep it that way.

There are other steps as well. In the coming months, we will aggressively lobby our lawmakers in Sacramento to have nearly a billion dollars of our funding restored. We will press increasingly on the federal government to take an enhanced role in supporting higher education. We will continue to cut costs wherever and whenever we can do so without harming excellence.

And, through our UC Commission on the Future, we will tap the best minds in the UC system and beyond to imagine what the 21st century university should look like, yet another way we can save costs and promote quality.

You can help. I hope to be able to count on your passion, intelligence and energy so that together we can work to bring to safe harbor this University we all love. In the coming months, I want to assemble an army of a million UC advocates who will fight with us for our fair share of the pie. There are more than 1.5 million of us who are connected to each other through the University of California — students, faculty, staff and alumni. What a mighty force we will be if we can only stick together. Anybody game for a march on Sacramento?