For Fund the UC’s supporters, the proposition that California should increase state aid to higher education seems wholly self-evident. But it appears that an increasingly large segment of the state’s political class is willing to do just the reverse.
For the most part, critics of the UC system are not motivated by a simple distrust of academia. Rather, these political commentators are increasingly skeptical the University has the ability to manage its finances competently and transparently.
These are not baseless concerns. Last year, the California political world was rocked by the revelation that UC President Janet Napolitano’s office grossly misappropriated its funding. The office used taxpayer money to create what amounted to a slush fund and systematically hampered a state audit of the University’s finances. The bombshell report prompted California political figures to call for additional funding to be withheld from the UC until the University proved itself capable of managing the money it already receives. Clearly, Fund the UC, a campaign that seeks to reform California’s system of property taxes to fully fund the University, has found itself in a tough spot. It must now contend with a political environment predisposed to immediately reject any increases in state aid to higher education.
However, that does not mean Fund the UC should abandon its goal of restoring support for our state’s public universities. In fact, the campaign’s push for greater aid can prove successful if it is coupled with a case for fiscal responsibility.
That is to say, Fund the UC must urge the University to trim its wasteful spending in order to extract greater funding from the state Legislature. Focusing on budgetary waste in this manner will allow Fund the UC to tackle overlooked causes of tuition increases and will bolster the case for additional state funding by forcing the UC to get serious about financial transparency.
Taking a closer look at the UC’s unnecessary expenditures would address an overlooked cause of rising tuition. Caroline Simon, a higher education blogger for Forbes, has argued that out-of-control tuition costs can be explained at least partly by higher administrative spending. Although the fact that administrative costs have risen in tandem with tuition is not enough to prove a cause-and-effect relationship, it does constitute political grist for Fund the UC. In particular, the campaign can make a compelling case that the UC’s budgetary priorities are misplaced, given that some of the nearly $3.7 million allocated for some administrators’ salaries in fiscal year 2014 could have been used to alleviate the sting of tuition increases.
Overpaid administrators may also serve as useful foils for a campaign seeking to inject its ideas into mainstream debate. In fact, railing against excessive administrative spending and bureaucratic bloat is more than likely to amount to a winning political strategy, given that political activists of all stripes are eager to tackle government waste and “drain the swamp” nationwide.
In addition, allowing the state Legislature to latch onto the issue of administrative spending allows lawmakers to avoid further criticism for their roles in California’s higher education funding crisis. Once its members are out of the crosshairs, the Legislature may be more willing to address the crisis from a politically advantageous position. Zeroing in on this overlooked cause of rising tuition would both strengthen Fund the UC’s case and make state lawmakers more amenable to its message.
After all, state legislators preoccupied with the UC’s budgetary carelessness have no shortage of alarming developments to cite if they want to quash Fund the UC’s ambitions. In addition to hiding a quasi-slush fund, the University has systematically evaded a 2013 law mandating greater financial transparency, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Given the UC’s budgetary track record, it is not surprising that some state lawmakers have rejected Fund the UC’s mission out of hand.
An emphasis on fiscal accountability and student outcomes would neutralize these criticisms and allow for a debate purely on the merits of increased state aid. This would ensure that any new funding would be spent to improve the quality of a UC education, not to increase administrative salaries.
To some, a new focus on fiscal accountability might appear to be a needless concession to conservative state lawmakers who would reject Fund the UC’s goals whether or not the campaign commits itself to budgetary transparency. In truth, however, these fiscal conservatives possess little political clout. In fact, most of the serious candidates for governor support increasing funding for the UC system, according to an EdSource article.
Furthermore, a commitment to fiscal transparency is not just a concession to conservative Republicans, but to powerful Democratic politicians whose support Fund the UC needs. Outgoing Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has already held “the UC’s feet to the fire” by withholding higher education funding in an attempt to promote budgetary transparency.
Fiscal accountability isn’t just an accessory to Fund the UC’s agenda – it’s essential to it. Unless the campaign embraces budgetary responsibility, it will not be able to win the support of fiscal conservatives in the state Capitol or highlight an overlooked cause of tuition increases.
Ironically, tightening belts might just be the way to fund the UC.