Janet Napolitano finally has the UC in the right position: on offense.
For years, the University of California has been on defense when it comes to the budget discussion. The state’s university systems don’t have the kind of special initiative and constitutional protections, so politicians cut their budgets fairly easily. And when UC tries to compensate with tuition fee increases or by recruiting more out-of-state students paying full freight, the same politicians attack the U.C.
So the oped co-authored by Napolitano and the Board of Regents chair Bruce Varner was a smart move to change this dynamic. By declaring early in the post-election haze that the legislature and governor had to come up with more money for the universities or force tuition fee hikes, they put the pressure on the legislature, and launched what should be an attempt to stop political bullying of the UC? Either pay up, was the message to the legislature and governor, or make the kids pay.
The reaction to the strategy showed that it was the right move. Legislative leaders of both parties were put on the defensive and pressed on what they were going to do about the UC. And those leaders whined about this predicament. Bob Huff complained that the UC was putting a gun to the legislature’s head (which, of course, is what other interest groups with juice always do). Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins lamely whined in a statement that the U.C. was trying to make pawns of students. That’s pretty rich when you consider the state’s leadership just decided to prioritize debt and a rainy-day budget formula (Prop 2) over restoring previous cuts to higher ed.
The U.C. wins either way. First, it puts them firmly on the agenda during the budget debate for new funding – and increases their chances of getting more from the state after Gov. Brown blocked a couple of boosts this year. Second, if lawmakers say no, it gives U.C. leaders a much freer hand – not only to charge students more but also to ramp up other attempts to develop new revenues, from governments, corporations and alumni, without political carping.
A high-profile fight could be very useful to the U.C. in making clear its predicament and boosting its revenues. The university system could even pursue a ballot initiative to demand more money if lawmakers balk.
Now, the university leadership needs to keep pressing this message: either fund us properly (I was glad to see a top UC financial official complain to the Sacramento Bee that Prop 30 hadn’t resulted in the promised funds for the system), or stop grandstanding and give us more room to maneuver. UC needed an aggressive president who knows how to fight. Napolitano may be it.