Rebirth eyed for higher ed database, watchdog

The campus of the University of California, Berkeley. Photo: LAgirl5252

A move is afoot in the Capitol to bring back a higher education watchdog and restore a data trove of 1.7 billion records on public colleges and universities that were placed in limbo by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Outgoing Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, wants to restore the functions of the California Postsecondary Education Commission. His bill, AB 1348, would create a new independent entity with a new name and a redesigned governing board.

Brown eliminated the commission in 2011 to save $2 million.

“Not funding CPEC didn’t save the government that much money in the scheme of things,” said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University.

But, McCuan added, Brown’s unexpected action did “push the issue forward about what should we do with higher education in California.”

Brown’s 2011 veto, which eliminated 18 employees, cut the small state office that was created decades earlier to track the quality of California’s public institutions of higher learning and recommend improvements.

By law, the agency served as the official clearinghouse for information and research for the University of California system, California State University system and California Community College system. At the core of its operation, it developed and independently managed the database, parts of which date from the 1960s.

In his veto, Brown said the CPEC was “ineffective.” Others agreed, including the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, which said the CPEC’s watchdog role had been weakened by budget cuts and a lack of aggressive oversight.

In the Assembly, there is support for creating a new agency to replace the CPEC. Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, is one of the backers.

“With the defunding of CPEC in the previous budget cycles, California lacks any guiding body for higher education coordination,” Levine said.

The prized database remains intact at the headquarters of the community college system but it has not been updated since Brown’s veto, which means its value is diminishing, said Patrick Perry, the system’s vice chancellor for technology. Updating requires an authorized and independent state agency to access, evaluate and manage the data — and that doesn’t exist, with the demise of CPEC.

Pérez’s bill would set up an office called the California Higher Education Authority, or CHEA, which would perform largely the same functions as CPEC.

But there is a major difference: His bill would cut the 16-member board that governed CPEC to 13 members, eliminating a representative of each of the public institutions of higher education. Instead, the CHEA board would be composed of nine members of the general public appointed by the governor and Legislature to staggered six-year terms, and four student representatives who would serve for a year.

Removing higher education from the governing board stems from suggestions by the lawmakers’ analyst that the CPEC was ineffective in riding herd on higher education because the very institutions it was watching wielded undue influence on its board.

“The new entity (should) have independence from the public higher education segments,” the Legislative Analyst’s Office said.

That change also is a key sticking point for the institutions, whose representatives want changes to the legislation, according to a participant in the negotiations that have been going on since last fall.

Pérez’s bill, already approved in the Assembly by a 77-1 vote, awaits action in the Senate.

The UC, CSU and community college systems all contributed information to the database and tapped it regularly. The database included voluminous student and fiscal profiles, cross-indexing between the three institutions. It also tracked student transfers between schools and performance reports. Among other things, the information was used to develop scholarships, site new campuses, create new programs, revise student services, consider faculty pay and assist academic reviews.

A key function was independently evaluating the performance of the institutions and how they delivered services to students.

The database includes confidential student and financial information, and there are fears that the current storage at the community college headquarters doesn’t meet federal privacy rules.

“Nothing has been done with it,” Perry said. “We haven’t added to it, we haven’t changed it, we haven’t modified it — it’s still up as it was the day CPEC closed.”

Ed’s Note:  A version of this story appeared earlier in The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, a content partner of Capitol Weekly.

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