Gray Davis for UC President?

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)

It’s clear from stories about the search for a new president of the University of California that there’s a strong possibility we’ll see a non-traditional choice.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants someone who understands politics and non-academic leadership – in an LA Times story, he mentioned President Clinton and former governors in states such as Indiana and Oklahoma that have led universities. The regents want someone who can battle Sacramento and raise lots of money from private sources. And Gov. Jerry Brown wants someone who will listen to Gov. Jerry Brown.

Put those things together, and doesn’t this sound like a job for Gray Davis?

Say what you want about California’s only recalled governor, but he knows politics and state government. He’s got the brains and academic credentials to raise universities. And he’s a former chief of staff to Brown.

And you want to talk fundraising? Davis was so effective as a fundraiser that it became a political liability for him.

He’s also the right personality for this moment. And that personality is prickly. He’ll yell at people who get in his way. That’s usually not an effective way to lead, but the UC badly needs someone who won’t be stepped on.

Davis also might be creative in the job. That wasn’t his reputation as a governor, but he’s spent a ton of time thinking about his time in public service, and about California and its governance. He was a key player in the Think Long Committee for California work; many of the details of Think Long’s report get into how the UC can play a larger, different role in the life of a state.

He might even be able to convince Brown and the Democratic legislature to butt out – and stop trying to micromanage the universities. Brown has delegated to Davis before. And he might even get to recycle an old favorite line – that the legislature should “implement his vision” – again.

He’d probably be understanding about not being paid too much, since the regents are more than a little obsessed with pay. He’ll still easily make more than twice as much as he did as a governor.

My own hope is that, understanding the broken budget process as he does, he’ll seek constitutional protection for higher education funding, via the ballot. While this is bad policy for the state, it’s essential protection for the universities in a budget world in which other spending interests have such protection.

This should be Gray’s job. If he wants it.

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