Wanted: a War President for UC

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

If I were interviewing candidates to replace Mark Yudof as president of the University of California, my first question would be: Have you ever hit anyone in the face?

The second question would be: if you have, did you like it?

I’d be tempted not to consider any candidate who didn’t answer both questions in the affirmative.

The University of California badly needs a president who knows how to fight. For 25 years, the UC has been playing nice and doing the right thing. And that’s gotten the system nowhere.

The UC opted to be responsible and not buy the kind of Prop 98-style protection that the K-14 system bought. The result: UC made itself easy to cut.

The UC made a series of compacts with governors on cuts and spending – only to see those cuts exceed what was agreed to.

And more recently, the UC has stood back, meekly, as the governor and legislators have used it as a punching bag, blaming the system for tuition increases that are, in fact, the result of decisions by the governor and legislators to cut funding.

It is well past time for someone who is less academic, less “responsible” – and way more hard-edged.

The UC president is someone who should take the fight to the door of the governor and lawmakers. This means: join student protests against funding cuts. Instead of pepper spraying students, embrace them, and rent buses to take them to Sacramento.

And by all means, go publicly after the governor and lawmakers who snipe at the university. Perhaps even making forays into the districts of legislators who vote to cut the system.

This war president should constantly remind people of what’s been done – huge reductions in public support to the system. A near doubling of tuition over the past four years. And massive meddling by politicians. The war president should keep reminding people of who did that stuff- the same governor and lawmakers who now say they want to reform the system. Why, the UC war president should ask, would we trust these folks?

Now, a lot of people, reasonable people, will say this is bad advice. They’ll say that you don’t want to get into a war with the people who fund you. But the answer to that is easy. Being nice hasn’t gotten the UC anywhere. Indeed, diplomacy has made the UC easier to cut. It’s time for new rules. You mess with the UC, you pay a political and public relations price. And for goodness sakes, don’t be bashful, Mr. War President, make the attacks personal. The UC war president should be calling people out by name.

The war president also should be raising money for a political blast – a constitutional guarantee of a higher funding level – I’d set it at twice the current level – for the UC system. (And by all means, include the CSU as well if that system will go along).

The war president will get all kinds of criticism from the media and interest groups about ballot box budgeting. The war president’s answer should be: everyone else has gone to the ballot for budget protection. We’re getting killed because we didn’t. So since no one is willing to fix this broken budget system, I’m going to get the kind of protection that other programs have. And I’ll keep sponsoring ballot initiatives until I get it. And by the way, I’m not sure that people who oppose our ballot initiative have every right to do so – but they shouldn’t be welcomed on UC campuses.

The UC will still face incredible pressures and challenges. But a new president should make clear that he or she won’t let the system go down without a fight.

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