Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns may include satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell which is which.

Jerry Brown will be sworn in today as California’s governor – again – and think what you may about him, he isn’t boring.

I found this out when I worked for him – tangentially – in 1981 and 1982. During that period, I had left the Sacramento Union to be the press guy for what then was known as the Department of Economic and Business Development. This was a subunit of the still extant and utterly superfluous “superagency” in charge of business, transportation and housing.

In the course of my brief tenure, I wrote an article or two that appeared under the governor’s byline, but I never met him in the flesh. However, I did get to visit the governor’s offices in the Capitol, where I saw firsthand its famous worn and torn carpeting. I also met some of the weird acolytes who did Brown’s bidding and helped formulate state policy – often through the medium known sniggeringly as “pillow talk.”

The place was a circus, with the governor as ringmaster, and circuses are not boring.

I spent a horrifyingly educational eight months at DEBD, after which I gladly fled back to the Union, starting in the pedestrian but relatively sane job of home and garden editor. During my months in state service, I learned that private enterprise, for all its wastefulness, operated with the efficiency of a top-of-the-line microprocessor compared to government.

Sure, a business boss may promote his offspring or hire unqualified family retainers, but entrepreneurial nepotism cannot match the abandon with which politicians lay waste to public wealth by placing political allies in do-nothing jobs. (Early in my state tenure, I asked a top administrator what function one of these characters performed and was told, with unexpected heat, “He does nothing!”)

But patronage is a subject for another column. My purpose here is to remind Gov. Brown of a major study done under DEBD auspices, a work for which he, as chief executive, naturally and justifiably took credit.

Yours truly got to market the study, titled “California’s Technological Future,” and it received lavish attention from every major bastion of the “old media,” including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, the tech magazines, broadcast networks … you name it.

I recall most vividly the finding that California’s essentially free higher education – through the University of California and California State University systems – was perhaps our most important engine of economic development and job creation. Innovations developed at research campuses, for example, had pushed “Silicon Valley” to the forefront in technology, making California the leader in computers and computer-driven industry.

In the ’80s, when my offspring attended UC schools, attendance at public universities in the Golden State still was essentially free. It cost more than I paid in the ’60s, to be sure, but tuition was nominal. Since then, successive Legislatures and administrations have brutalized university budgets while regents and trustees have expanded the administrative payroll. Naturally, the universities’ highly paid place-holders have seen that costs are passed along to students.

Thus, the price of university attendance has risen ever higher. The UC fees that were about $175 annually when I enrolled in 1962 now total more than $11,000 a year. Add books, room and board and the other college expenses, and an academic year at a UC campus now costs close to $30,000. At CSU schools, the tab ranges from $15,000 to $23,000.

Naturally, the wizards in state government argue that the systems’ “end users” must help pay the freight, and never mind that endlessly boosting student expenses is killing the state’s economic golden goose.

Somewhere in Sacramento a political operative – perhaps on the new governor’s staff – is thinking, “Oh, yeah? The cost of educating students is going up and must be paid somehow. It’s easy to criticize higher fees, but what’s your solution?”

Well, part of the answer is to make a university degree meaningful again. This means four-year institutions should stop admitting students whose proper role would be sweeping out the gymnasium.

Gov. Gray Davis once asserted that any student attaining a “C” average in high school deserved a college education. In the annals of fatuous political utterance, this ranks right up there with Sen. Roman Hruska’s declaration that mediocre folks were entitled to “a little representation” on the U.S. Supreme Court.

I know from experience that a high-school “C” today would have been an “F” in generations past, and a lot of “A” grades would have been “Cs” or lower. But California has continued piping sub-mediocrities into the CSU system. Most professors engage in social promotion and send them on, degrees in hand, to pollute the work force.

California should insist that its universities get out of the remediation business and restore the “meritocracy.” (A major difficulty would be presented by professors to who view merit-based advancement as unfair to those without merit.) Requiring students to be qualified for higher learning would be a start. Enrollment would grow at a more reasonable pace, and unqualified students wouldn’t crowd out the able. Fewer students: Lower costs.

This would require a level of political courage, a linkage possible in print, but seldom in life. Jerry Brown’s campaign statement that California ought to educate every illegal alien in this quarter of the galaxy doesn’t bode well for such a valorous stand.

But imagine if the governor took such a stand. Once more, he would not be boring – and in a good way.

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