Political fallout of UC’s decisions raises Capitol eyebrows

A venerable, iconic institution, the University of California faces increasing criticism from lawmakers and the public for appearing insensitive to the concerns of the public and Legislature during a time of fiscal crisis. The posture is hindering support for the higher education system.

The year has been rife with politically ungainly moves on the part of UC, from opting out of the state controller’s public salary database, announcing raises for faculty and unrepresented staff while at the same time drastically raising tuition, recruiting out-of-state students to boost revenue and displaying 2010 payroll data that shows top earners are earning even more year to year.

The result is the perception of an institution with dulled political antennae.

“I don’t think their image to the general California public is as important as their image to their top donors, to what their status is amongst the higher ed family nation wide,” said Adam Keigwin, chief of staff to Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.

 “I think absent some sort of change in terms of their autonomy, there’s not a huge need for them to respond to the people or the Legislature,” he added.

The ghost of administrative scandals past – capped by the lingering issues of transparency and excessive executive pay – still haunt the university’s image, raising fears that the entire system is administratively overpaid and top heavy.

But that system, however ponderous, remains one of the world’s great educational institutions.

“UC is a $22 billion-a-year operation with not only 10 campuses, but five medical centers, world class research facilities, a division of agriculture and natural resources, and the second largest employer in state,” said UC spokesperson Steve Montiel, “so it’s naturally a big target, it’s always going to be the object of criticism from one corner or another.”

According to Montiel, UC is unifying the 11 different payroll systems across the campuses and medical centers, a project expected to begin this month, after which they should be able to provide compensation data in the format requested by state Controller John Chiang.

Montiel also notes that UC has made its compensation reports publicly available for the past five years.

As for the merit pay program offering a 3 percent raise for unrepresented staff, it was a part of a pool set aside before this year’s budget cuts, and primarily offsets the decline in compensation that resulted from increased pension contributions put into place last January by the regents.

Though high-ranking executives were excluded from participation, faculty administrators, like deans, making up to $200,000 also qualify. The purpose is to recruit and retain faculty, which brings up the dilemma of the University’s obligations as a public institution to maintain affordability versus the realities of dealing with private competitors.

“Administrative compensation, particularly at the [private universities] has in a lot of ways gotten out of hand, but that’s the arena in which the University of California has to compete,” said David Simmons, chair of the University-wide Academic Senate, “Administrative compensation has been a huge trouble area for the University because it makes a convenient excuse for the members of the Legislature to attack the UC or at least justify reduced state funding.”

According to 2010 data, total compensation (cash plus benefits) for UC faculty is 4 percent below and senior management (e.g., the president, chancellors) 14 percent below their counterparts at comparable institutions. Additionally, as state money declines, employee compensation is increasingly paid by private sources, like teaching hospital fees.

While faculty retention is a growing concern on some campuses, critics at the Capitol say the mission of public service gets lost in the preoccupation with salaries.

“You have this cycle where each institution is paying more and more for top-notch administrators. But because that culture exists, maybe we in California should say enough is enough,” Keigwin said.

Keigwin’s boss, who is running for San Francisco mayor, is a frequent critic of what he describes as UC’s lack of public accountability and transparency.

UC has worked with Yee’s office, coming together, for example, on the Richard McKee Transparency Act of 2011, currently on the governor’s desk, ensuring UC, CSU and the community college auxiliaries and foundations adhere to state public records laws.

Yee recently took another jab at the University, reintroducing a bill that would prohibit pay raises for top administrators at CSU and UC during bad budget years. Though the state admittedly doesn’t have that power over UC because of its constitutional autonomy, that hasn’t always saved the Regents from the Legislature’s influence.

Yee’s 2006 bill, AB 2581, making California the first state in the nation to prohibit censorship of college student press, was described as outside the jurisdiction of the state and opposed by UC. But the Regents adopted a resolution in compliance with the bill after its passing. Though that issue possessed first amendment implications that executive pay does not, the Regents may still hesitate before thumbing their nose at a mandate from the Legislature.

Whether the Legislature having a heavier hand in running UC would solve the system’s problems is debatable. Yee’s last bill similarly dealing with executive pay received overwhelming bipartisan support before being vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

But legislators are asking for a larger role in an institution it is asking to become increasingly self-sufficient.

“I’ve sat in Regents meetings for two years now and spent a lot of time with President Yudof, and I think they are highly sensitive to what goes on in Sacramento,” said Simmons. “But the Legislature has backed the University into a corner right now, it’s kind of at the end of its rope, and regardless of what members of the Legislature may think, there’s just no room beyond replacing cuts in state funding with tuition hikes.”

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