Sacramento is having a field day.
A recent state audit found the University of California Office of the President failed to disclose nearly $175 million in budget reserves and claimed UC executive employees receive unnecessarily excessive salaries and benefits.
This is the scandal Sacramento has been yearning for. Ravenous California lawmakers are wasting no time politicizing the UC’s so-called “slush account.” And all it took was a couple of explosive newspaper headlines for legislators to start singing the requiem of the UC’s autonomy.
But as much as lawmakers would like to frame this as yet another example of the UC squandering student fees, it’s not. And despite what the reported instances of employees getting reimbursed limousine rides might indicate, the audit doesn’t demonstrate an issue with the UC’s autonomy either.
This is an issue of transparency. The administration is saving $175 million – possibly for legitimate purposes, for all we know – and the public was kept in the dark the entire time. That’s something UC President Janet Napolitano needs to address by increasing her office’s transparency and reporting its spending decisions with the UC Board of Regents.
And Sacramento needs to stay out of it.
This isn’t to say lawmakers shouldn’t concern themselves with the audit’s findings, but that they’re ignoring the finer details of the situation.
Take Gavin Newsom, for example. Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor and a UC ex officio regent, is gung-ho about reversing the UC’s recent tuition hike under some mistaken notion that the undisclosed $175 million can simply be plopped somewhere else to solve the UC’s financial problems.
Newsom, however, blindly assumes the funds are simply collecting dust. According to Napolitano, it’s far more complex: $83 million go toward “restricted funds,” or funds specifically allocated to things such as administrative funds, endowments and research grants; and $49 million go toward the UC Global Food Initiative, the UC’s carbon reduction efforts and cybersecurity. Only $38 million remain as unused reserves Napolitano can use to respond to emergency situations.
Newsom also fails to account for the fact that the modest tuition hike of $282 only meets the UC’s growing financial needs. An extra $175 million wouldn’t solve the University’s underlying financial problems, even if it was collecting dust, as Newsom assumes.
He isn’t alone in his folly. Several legislators have been calling for more oversight of the UC. While well-intended, demands could very well turn into attempts to subjugate the UC to further enrollment caps or increase resident student enrollment by an unsustainable amount – both of which have already happened.
And it’s not far-fetched to say lawmakers might even attempt to remove the UC’s constitutional autonomy, considering they unsuccessfully sought to do so twice already this decade alone. That would be disastrous for students: Legislators could play politics and dictate enrollment and tuition standards at the detriment of students.
Don’t get me wrong, the UC is still very much at fault here. Students and faculty have long complained about the lack of administrative transparency – be it the secret installation of network monitoring devices or handling of the campuses’ various sexual harassment cases – and this audit justifies that.
Moreover, the state auditor reported UCOP interfered with a survey of campus administrators to have it reflect more positively on the office – something that, if proven, would draw the very integrity of UCOP into question.
But this issue of an opaque office is something the board of regents must address, not the state. The board was ultimately designed to oversee the University system and shield it from the political tides of Sacramento, and it should be the one to handle the matter in an apolitical fashion. The regents must be the ones to require Napolitano regularly report her office’s expenditures and ensure no amount of funding – well-intentioned or not – goes undisclosed in the future.
And only a decision by the regents can guarantee students and taxpayers a rational and appropriate response to the audit’s concerns.
Of course, this isn’t to say all the political chatter has been shortsighted or irrelevant. The audit proved a long-held assertion that the UC’s administration has ballooned at the cost of student fees, and excessive executive employee perquisites definitely warrant legislators’ attention. However, Napolitano has already expressed support for most of the audit’s recommendations, and there is nothing more the state can – or should – attempt to butt its head into.
The audit sheds light on an administration that, for matters of carelessness or underhandedness, was not forthright with its fiduciary matters. And this is something everyone – lawmakers, regents, students and taxpayers – should be worried about.
But if legislators start jumping into the fray and seizing the reigns on what should otherwise be a University-managed problem, the UC is likely to be left in a worse state than what it’s currently in.
After all, political points don’t pay the bills. And they most certainly don’t serve students.