Last May, the Board of Regents of the University of California announced a 9.3% system-wide fee increase in response to the budget crisis the university is facing. This announcement was followed shortly by reports that the newly chosen chancellor of UC Davis, Linda Katehi, will receive a $400,000 annual income upon her term in office. These two increases, in the midst of a financial crisis, have caused a lot of outrage among affiliates of the UC system. Students and parents object that tuition is exorbitant for a public university. Taxpayers argue that the UC’s executive payroll, which averages at $305,000, is excessive for so-called “public servants.”
California’s state legislature has taken notice of this outrage. Efforts have been made to decrease the UC’s autonomy, to try to make our “public” institution act more publically. State Senator Leeland Yee of San Francisco has headed these efforts by introducing SCA 21, a bill that would give power to our state’s legislature to pass statutes affecting the university. Senator Yee argues that this proposed public oversight is similar to that of the California State University (CSU) system and will keep the UC’s student fees down while maintaining its sterling reputation.
But is more public oversight really a good thing? Undoubtedly the regents have made rather poor decisions recently with giving some executives higher incomes than the president of the United States, especially in a time of financial crisis. However, is eliminating the regents’ autonomy an apt punishment for their actions, or will it in turn end up punishing the students of the university?
Before our state legislature makes any rash decisions, it should step back and analyze the situation more closely. First and foremost, the University of California in its present state is a top-rate collective of colleges. Our school, Berkeley, is presently the #21 top university in the country according to U.S. News & World Report, outranking well-known private schools like Georgetown University and New York University, as well as being the top public school on the list. Similarly, UCLA is #23, outranking its private rival school, University of Southern California. Additionally, the UC’s sites at San Diego, Davis, Irvine, and Santa Barbara all make the Report’s top hundred list, qualifying them as Tier 1 institutions. The UC is the educational pride of California, as well as the finest public collective of colleges in the nation. This superlative institution has been functioning under autonomous control from the state legislature since 1952 and has greatly increased in prestige over its 57-year run of independence.
So why exactly should the university have more public oversight? Why suddenly change a system that has been run more or less acceptably for over a half of a century? Why hand the controls of the UC to politicians who cannot even balance our state’s budget? Senator Yee argues, “Only five other public universities in the country have a similar status, with UC receiving the greatest level of autonomy. This completely outdated model results in the regents thinking they are above the law.” Although the senator’s statement regarding the five other privately-functioning public universities is true, what he fails to mention is that this group of five includes the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and the University of Michigan, each of which are top-tier schools ranked in the Report’s top 50 best universities.
Under SCA 21, the UC would function very similarly to the CSU system. California’s state legislature would have power to pass statutes affecting the university. However, as Berkeley Graduate School of Education professor W. North Grubb, who specializes in studying higher education, told the Daily Californian, it is unfair to treat these two separate systems equally. “[The University of California] is not really a public institution in the sense that all of its money comes from the public.” In fact, only $3.25 billion of the university’s $19.6 billion budget is public funding. That’s roughly 16.5%, far less than a quarter. “I acknowledge the university’s failure,” he said, “[But the amendment] will create an additional level of bureaucracy, slowing down the nimbleness the UC system needs in order to respond to those concerns.”
Not only is it simply unfair to treat the two different systems equally, but it is not academically wise either. The prestige that the UC carries could very well be at risk if it were to be treated like a CSU. Although the CSU is a respectable collective of universities, we must face the fact that none of the CSU’s 22 schools are ranked as “top-tier” according to the Report. In fact, they are not even ranked as “second tier” or “third tier.” Additionally, the Department of Education ranks California’s pre-college education system as the third worst of all 50 states. We must remember these two education systems of our state function with a high degree of public oversight. Unfortunately, there is a direct correlation between the quality of each education institution and its amount of public oversight: the more oversight each institution has, the poorer its quality. The UC has the least oversight, and also happens to be more prestigious. Our state’s pre-college institutions have the most amount of oversight, and they’re quality is extremely substandard. It is an indubitable historical fact that private educational institutions tend to function more efficiently than public ones (i.e., the schools of the Ivy League). Similarly, privately-functioning public institutions (like the UC) act more efficiently than publically functioning counterparts (like the CSU). Thus, placing the UC at the level of oversight the CSU has could deflate its reputation so severely that the two institutions would become indistinguishable. We would no longer have the best public university system in the world.
It is very easy to get caught up in populist rage when an injustice arises. But before we shout with the masses for public oversight and government takeover, we must step back and analyze the situation closely. In the case of the UC, it is very doubtful that a system that has run efficiently for 57 years will function as well under control of politicians who cannot balance a state’s budget.
Instead of unjust (and unwise) demand for a government takeover of a top-tier university system, we should focus our attention on a just demand for a fair payroll for UC executives.