Cost-cutting Won’t Come Easy to UC

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

California voters may have backed his Prop. 30 tax hike, but get used to hearing Gov. Jerry Brown talk about the need to still keep trimming state expenses.

Whether anyone will be listening is another question.

On Tuesday, for example, the governor made a rare appearance at a UC Regents meeting and voted against paying Nicholas Dirks, the incoming chancellor at UC Berkeley, a $486,800 annual salary, $50,000 more than outgoing Chancellor Robert Birgeneau earned.

That $50,000 pay hike “does not fit within the spirit of servant leadership that I believe will be required over the next several years,” Brown said, harking back to his days as a Jesuit seminarian who took a vow of poverty.

Now that extra $50,000, as a number of regents reminded him, comes from private donations, not from the state treasury.

But for the governor, it’s the illusion of big spending, not the reality of outside funding, that really matters.

An 11 percent salary hike for an extremely well-paid university administrator at a time when a majority of California voters reluctantly agreed to tax themselves to deal with the state’s financial troubles just looks awful, regardless of where the money actually came from.

“I’ve just come through a campaign where I’ve pledged to the people that I will use their funds judiciously and with real stewardship, with prudence,” the governor said, making it clear that that careful handling of state funds will extend to money going to the UC system.

But the regents, along with many other state leaders, don’t seem to grasp what Brown’s saying.

“I couldn’t believe the lack of deference the regents showed” to Brown, said one political insider who was at the Oakland meeting. “You’d think they would realize he’s the governor.”

Nah. The regents approved Dirks’ salary on an 11-3 vote, with Charlene Zettel and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom joining the governor in opposition.

“We’re dealing with the No. 1 public university in the world,” said Regent George Kieffer, in explanation.

That’s not going to continue to be the case if the university wants to spend money it doesn’t have. While Prop. 30 saved the UC system from an automatic $250 million budget cut, that doesn’t mean it’s time to put sweatbands on the lampshades because happy days are here again, the governor warned.

Brown vowed to push the university system for “greater efficiency, greater elegance, modesty,” virtues that have been noticeably lacking from UC officials (see Kieffer, George).

“We are going to have to restrain this system in many, many of its elements and this will come with great resistance,” the governor said.

Making good on that promise is going to make Brown a very busy guy, since he could use those same words to apply to Democratic legislators, union leaders, social service executives and just about every other group that was with him on the winning side of the Prop. 30 battle and now figure it’s time to divvy up the spoils.

No one can accuse Brown of playing favorites, though. The eight new judges the UC Berkeley grad named in his latest round of appointments feature two from the UC system, one each from Hastings and the UC Davis law schools.

On the other hand, he also named judges who got their law degrees at Golden Gate University School of Law, San Joaquin College of Law, Newport University School of Law and the Inns Court School of Law in London.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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