California State Senator Leland Yee thinks UC has a problem. The regents are out of control, he says, and their behavior is so bad it’s time for the legislature to take over.
Last week Yee and several other co-sponsors proposed a constitutional amendment that would remove the near-absolute autonomy UC has enjoyed for its entire history and instead give control to California lawmakers. While we generally support efforts to make the UC regents and the university as a whole more accountable, this approach is foolish and should be rejected.
UC governance should not be entrusted with the state, period. California has a long history of damaging its public universities through drastic budget cuts. For example, state spending per UC student has dropped 40 percent in the past 20 years. In the past two years alone, the state has reduced the amount of money it is allocating to UC from $3.3 billion to $2.5 billion. It is abundantly clear that higher education is not a priority for the state, so the UC community has little reason to support this amendment.
It is particularly audacious for Yee to bring this amendment now, as our dysfunctional state government approaches the brink of collapse. The legislature’s chronic inability to successfully complete its most important task – passing a balanced budget on time – speaks volumes about how well it would do managing the university. Unfortunately, Yee and the bill’s other co-sponsors have no credibility when they talk about proper management and upholding the public trust.
One of the arguments supporters of this amendment make is that UC has more autonomy than any other public university in the country, and only five other systems have a similar status. This argument ignores the fact that UC is also one of the best public university systems in the U.S. It also ignores the possibility that being free of political control has helped UC in its success. Without question, the regents know the university better than anyone else in state government and they are thus the most qualified to determine its policy.
None of this is to excuse the regents for some of the poor choices they have made in recent years, such as simultaneously offering pay hikes to top executives while raising fees for students. Yet while egregious on their own, these issues must be viewed in the greater context of the enormous achievements the university has made since the Master Plan for Higher Education was instituted in 1960. These achievements were made because of UC’s autonomy, not in spite of it.
In general, Yee is a good legislator who has brought many great ideas to the state senate, such as a proposal to give protection to whistleblowers in the UC system.
This amendment is not one of them. The rest of the legislature should recognize this and reject it.