Public Comment

Beyond UC vs. Sacramento: It’s Relationships That Matter

By Hillary Violet Lehr
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 01:08:00 PM

While UC administrators blame the state government in Sacramento for recent cuts in funding, the top echelons of UC are part of the same web of political nepotism and short-sighted anti-tax idolatry damaging the State’s public services and infrastructure.  

In the wake of the historic Sept. 24 UC protests for public education, the UC administration has moved swiftly in a coordinated campaign to coopt public outrage by pointing fingers at the dismal budget situation in Sacramento. A consistent statement about the protests—in UC spokesman Steve Montiel’s words, “the true source of their frustration is in Sacramento”—has been issued in forums such as NPR, the New York Times, Regent meetings and University emails by top officials like UC President Yudof, UC spokesman Peter King, and Berkeley’s spokesman Dan Mogulof and Chancellor Birgeneau.  

But blaming only Sacramento is misleading.  

First, several members of the Board Regents—the 26-member body running the UC system—are themselves part of state government in Sacramento—including the Assembly Speaker, the Governor, and the Lieutenant Governor —or have served in key positions in the Governor’s office or in state government, or are close friends with such folks. Regent Reiss advised the Governor’s election campaign, and Regent Kieffer,who was the Governor’s wife’s lawyer, co-chaired Schwarzenegger’s campaign. Kieffer denied nepotism, saying “it’s better if the governor knows a good deal about the person he or she considers for appointment.” Regent Gould advised the Governor and helped broker the 2004 budget in which a Compact was made to lessen reliance on public financing. Schwarzenegger and his Regent friends want lower taxes and smaller government—as evident in the recent report on tax reform by Schwarzenegger’s former money manager Paul Watcher, also a former Regent.  

Second, some Regents lobby against raising taxes and public spending, and directly or indirectly contribute money and support to electing governors or CA assembly members who will de-fund public services like the UC. New Regent Makarechian spearheaded a Republican strategy group and his elite real estate company gave over $100,000 to Schwarzenegger, and Regent Zettel gave thousands of dollars to the Lincoln Club’s efforts to reduce state taxes. Because these UC Regents shape the UC administration, UCOP has publically come out against measures that would have raised public revenue, such as the Tuition Relief Now Bill (a 1 percent tax on millionaires) and the California Higher Education Endowment Bill 656 (a small tax on oil), and measures to cut costs, such as caps on administrative salaries. So while Yudof recently suggested his critics “write to the Board of Regents, because they set my salary,” Regent Makarechian seems to believe we should raise executive salaries because they “are well below the market” and “we have to be competitive.” In sum, to blame Sacramento is disingenuous when the UC is governed by wealthy anti-tax CEOs and partisan insiders appointed with minimal oversight by conservative, multi-millionaire Governors.  

Third, the legislature doesn't allocate more funds to UC partly because they and the public don't trust UCOP and the Regents because of repeated controversies, most evident in recent scandals over compensation, bloated administration, and lab governance, not to mention BP and Oaks controversies. For example, the person heading UC Berkeley’s government outreach efforts is Linda Williams, who was caught up in a pay scandal—tate senator Romero called it “an outrage”—in which UC admitted misleading the public. Perhaps not the best sort of person to inspire confidence from tight-pocketed legislators. Legislators are also not inspired by the fact that Board President Regent Gould and Regent Schilling both were top managers of now insolvent banks, Wachovia and Golden West, heavy involved in toxic mortgages and credit default swaps—and Gould is leading the UC Commission on the Future.  

Fourth, why haven't the Office of the President, the Regents and UC executives been lobbying the state legislature harder these past years? Sure Yudof has scrambled this year to make 20 visits and have 20,000 letters sent, and students hold an annual Sacramento lobby conference. But our public university must have much more of a consistent public presence that goes beyond vague calls for support and gets into the nitty gritty of budget allocation, as does, for instance, the prison lobby. This has not happened partly because some UC management is not skilled in such, and partly because many of those who are so skilled view some degree of privatization as inevitable and/or beneficial. For example, UCOP’s External Relations division has only a few ‘fact sheets’ online—it’s most recent news story is from August 2008!. And while Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau celebrated BP’s $500 million pact with UC Berkeley, he said nothing of their $3 million contribution to blocking proposition 87, which would have used small oil taxes for long-term state funding for public research and education on sustainable energy.  

We need to get beyond the UC vs Sacramento debate, and examine and reform the pervasive undemocratic relationships of finance and cronyism that are dragging down the UC, state public education, and the California dream—some folks at have been working on these deep roots of the crisis. Until we address these sorts of forces—the same sorts that are blocking progressive national health care reform – no amount of protest or administrative restructuring will do much. Important changes stirred by social discontent have been made before in state and UC governance, notably in 1974 on term lengths and representation; the time is ripe again.  

Hillary Violet Lehr is a UC Berkeley graduate and co-founder of the Phoenix Project for UC Democracy.