April deficits bring May budget debates. And it’s no surprise what California’s state legislators will be telling the University of California at the negotiating table: It’s our way or our way.
Every May seems to follow the same storyline: The state auditor finds that the UC has engaged in some ostensibly opaque behavior and writes a scathing report detailing the University’s supposed escapades. The state government then threatens to withhold funding if the UC votes to raise tuition or doesn’t follow certain demands. The UC reluctantly agrees, and tuition-weary students survive yet another turbulent budget season.
If this sounds like a story of extortion, that’s because it is. And this year’s story arc is especially demonstrative of that.
Gov. Jerry Brown announced in his 2018-2019 budget plan that he is withholding $50 million in funding to the UC Office of the President because it completed only six of 10 recommendations from a 2017 audit stating the office did not disclose tens of millions in surplus funds. These funds were, contrary to the melodramatic headlines of the time, used for the UC Global Food Initiative, carbon reduction efforts and investments in cybersecurity.
Brown’s plan would provide the UC with a one-time supplement of $100 million for deferred maintenance projects and would implement a 3 percent increase in the University’s core academic funds to address inflation. The UC, however, has been requesting $140 million from the state after the Board of Regents announced in April they will not raise resident student tuition for the next academic year in their May meeting this week.
Dealing with a heavy hand makes sense when the University refuses to implement good-faith, cost-cutting efforts. But the UC has taken strides to meet the state’s demands in light of dwindling funds from the Legislature. Sacramento’s insistence on withholding funds from the UC isn’t just a reflection of its pettiness, but also its lack of interest in making higher education accessible.
The Legislature certainly controls the state’s purse, and lawmakers are right to ask what the University is doing with taxpayer money.
But there’s been a trend of the state increasingly attempting to control the UC.
As recently as 2013, the state government was more focused on tuition than administrative matters. Back then, Brown argued the UC was paying its administrators too much, and eventually persuaded the University to keep tuition at 2011 levels by offering additional state funds.
The next year, the regents voted to raise tuition by up to 5 percent each year for five years to mitigate insufficient state funding. Brown fiercely opposed the hike, threatening in March 2015 to withhold additional funding from the UC. UC President Janet Napolitano agreed two months later to maintain a tuition freeze until the 2017-2018 academic year in return for additional state funds.
But California started meddling with more than just tuition in 2016. That year, the state released an audit claiming the UC favored enrollment of nonresident students at the expense of California residents. Lawmakers then tinkered with the University’s enrollment policies, mandating it enroll 10,000 more Californians through 2018.
A year later, the state auditor released an audit claiming UCOP was stocking nearly $175 million in taxpayer and student fees. In response, Brown signed a budget deal that stripped UCOP of some of its financial autonomy and gave the state government power to withhold funds from the office. The state auditor also recommended the UC make 33 changes, with 10 recommendations having a deadline of April 30, 2018.
Brown is now withholding $50 million from UCOP because it missed that April 30 deadline for recommendations such as restructuring employee salary ranges, documenting fiscal changes, crafting a budget for the next year and publicly presenting those changes. These are all recommendations that, aside from being minor in scope, the UC claims to have completed on time.
The state’s encroachments haven’t made a UC education any more accessible. In fact, they’ve done the opposite.
Campuses like UCLA and UC Berkeley have untenable class sizes thanks to the enrollment increases. Students have also seen increased housing fees: UCLA, for example, is increasing graduate student housing rates to pay for the construction of housing meant to meet the increased enrollment. The UC has raised resident tuition by a total of 5.6 percent and nonresident supplemental tuition by 8.7 percent since 2016. And student fees have only been on the rise at campuses like UCLA because of limited administrative support for services such as mental health counseling and food closets.
An affordable UC education will continue to remain a pipe dream so long as the state government continues to levy punishments on the University for its political purposes – punishments that students have had to bear every year.
That’s not to say the University doesn’t warrant public scrutiny. The UC has a penchant for casting its lecturers by the wayside to cut costs. It underpays its essential campus employees, as seen by the three days of statewide strikes that American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees coordinated earlier this month. It suffers from administrative bloat, with administrators having even enjoyed limousine rides and theater performances on students’ and taxpayers’ buck.
These are instances in which the University has failed to serve Californians and the communities that rely on its campuses. But the UC, not the state government, is better equipped to solve them.
If the past decade has shown us anything, it’s that when Sacramento butts into university matters, students suffer. Politicians can say what they want to pander to voters, but their place is on Capitol Hill, not in the UC’s classrooms.