By Tanya Schevitz
Special to Calbuzz
Frustrated with “egregious” executive pay hikes, questionable policy decisions and student fee increases by the University of California, State Sen. Leland Yee has stirred up a controversy with a plan to give legislators more control over the university.
UC leaders object to his proposed constitutional amendment, which would strip the system of the autonomy it has had since 1879, saying it would allow Sacramento politics to disrupt a higher ed system that is the envy of the world.
Yee points to the strife over compensation and disclosure practices which has dogged UC in recent years as evidence the system needs more oversight. But critics of his proposal say financial oversight can be handled through the state budget, while the Legislature exerting more institutionalized control raises the specter of intrusion into academic freedom.
“You make your list of what is working and just simple muffler shop logic is, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” said UC spokesman Peter King.
At the core of the issue is the disparity in oversight of the state’s two public institutions. Both university systems have governing boards (25 trustees at CSU and 26 regents at UC) with the majority chosen by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. In addition, the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the assembly sit on the boards by virtue of their offices.
The key difference is that the Legislature has broad authority over the California State University system, allowing it to enact statutes affecting its policies. But UC’s autonomy, granted in the original state Constitution, means the Legislature can only “urge” the 10-campus UC system to comply with its desires.
Yee’s measure, if placed on the ballot by lawmakers and approved by voters, would give the Legislature the same sway over UC it has over CSU. This could mean affecting changes that range from limiting executive pay to more extreme policies, like deciding what industries should be banned from funding research.
Critics of the plan, arguing that UC already complies with most legislative demands, said his proposal would take one of the state’s more successful enterprises and put it in the hands of state leaders who have run the state into near poverty.
Supporters dismiss that criticism as “sound bite” hysteria. They argue that the Legislature has not abused its oversight authority with CSU. That system’s 23-campuses are overseen by their own governing board, and the Legislature does not interfere in most of its most policies, said Adam Keigwin, Yee’s communications director.
“All we are saying is that there should be some accountability here,” Keigwin told Calbuzz. “Now, if you don’t like something that happens at UC, too bad. We can pass statutes and it applies to CSU but our hands are tied with UC.”
Keigwin insists that the constitutional amendment is not intended to take policy leadership away from the appointed UC Board of Regents, and that any proposed changes would have to pass through the legislative process before being imposed.
However, in a press release announcing his measure, Yee listed “questionable conduct” by UC that included the system’s use of tobacco industry funding for research, exactly the kind of issue that critics say would put UC at the mercy of legislative meddling, and interfere with academic freedom.
The history of the UC system provides some guidance.
Daniel Coit Gilman, UC’s second president, resigned in 1875 stating that “however, well we may build up the University, its foundations are unstable, because dependent on legislative control and popular clamor,” according to a 1977 UCLA Law Review article by Professor Harold Horowitz. Soon after Gilman’s resignation, UC was granted autonomy through the 1879 Constitution.
Some CSU leaders, well familiar with mandated Legislative oversight, say it would be a mistake to impose the same on UC. Because of its required ties with the state, CSU has had to deal, for example, with everything from legislative regulations on what kind of cars to buy its police officers to extra hurdles instituting new academic programs.
Karen Zamarripa, CSU’s assistant vice chancellor for advocacy and state relations, said that legislators are not familiar enough with the institutions to set policy, such as the level of raises that should be allowed. That should be left to the governing boards, which she noted at CSU has members appointed by the governor and approved by two-thirds vote by the state senate. At UC, confirmation of regents requires only a majority vote by the state Senate.
Zamarripa said that she has seen very few instances where UC has not complied with legislative requests. Although the state’s share of UC’s budget has shrunk dramatically – to about 15 percent of its overall $19 billion budget – the system still depends on legislative-approved state funds. This means that lawmakers can simply pull on those purse strings, if they want something done.
“What they really want to do is get into the micromanagement of the organization, and that has not been helpful for us,” Zamarripa said. “I’m not sure what they get here except to interfere in areas that are not appropriate. They have control of UC’s budget and they can publicly pressure them.”
UC’s autonomy has concrete impacts in recruiting academic and research talent, as well. Instead of being part of the state retirement program, UC has its own retirement system, which has been a major tool in recruitment and retention.
The controversial bill, SCA 21, is authored by Senators Yee, (D-San Francisco), Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) and Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), and introduced in the assembly as ACA 24 by Assembly members Brian Nestande (R-Palm Desert) and Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge). It faces a long road, requiring approval of two-thirds of the Legislature and then a vote of the people. So its passage is uncertain.
However, former UC Regent Velma Montoya predicted that, “UC likely will learn how much it has fallen in favor with legislators, and by extension with voters, by not sufficiently cleaning house.”