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One of the first rules of politics is that — unless you are a private investigator or a government auditor — you never want to see your name in the same headline as the phrase “secret fund.”
Yet, that’s exactly where University of California President Janet Napolitano finds herself in the wake of a scathing report from the state’s government watchdog agency that criticized her office for a lack of transparency and accountability in its spending decisions.
State Auditor Elaine Howle’s report charged that university officials failed to disclose a $175 million budgetary reserve and that the UC president’s office then interfered with the auditor’s efforts to solicit information from the leaders of the system’s 10 campuses as to the extent of these problems.
One of the main reasons for hiring Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona and President Barack Obama’s secretary of homeland security, was for her considerable political skills. So it’s reasonable to ask why someone with such savvy would end up in this embarrassing predicament.
Napolitano has gamely defended the programs that she has funded as worthwhile expenditures that would help the university accomplish its broader mission. But she is too smart to think that a public debate over the merits of using tuition money to provide support for undocumented immigrant students and for UC’s Global Food Initiative, while potentially controversial, would be more harmful than allegations of a multimillion dollar cover-up. It’s even more difficult to believe that someone with her substantial experience would have left herself open to the inevitable charges of obstructing a government investigation by allowing her office to try to influence the responses of university employees to the state auditor’s inquiry.
The most reasonable conclusion is that Napolitano herself is facing daunting pressures from within the UC system itself.
She may have been making an effort to win the allegiance of senior officials who have been suspicious of her hiring from the beginning, and ended up taking clumsy steps that a veteran politico like her would otherwise have known to avoid. So the question then becomes who is best equipped to investigate the internal process within the university administration that led to this unfortunate series of events.
The Legislature seems ready to nominate itself for the job. But the state government already has conducted no fewer than eight inquiries into the UC system in the past four years, and the enthusiasm with which legislators seem to desire to impose their influence on the state’s historically independent university system makes many traditionalists uncomfortable. When Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon declared last week that “it’s not our desire to oversee the management of the UCs,” perhaps the next logical step for him would be to tell his colleagues to stop trying to oversee the management of the UCs.
But someone has to figure out what went wrong here and how to fix it.
The university administration’s internal controls are not working properly, and the Legislature’s aggressiveness will incite a discussion regarding the necessity for academic autonomy. Which leaves it to Gov. Jerry Brown, not to try to solve this impasse himself, but to appoint an outside commission of distinguished Californians who have the experience and the wisdom to take on this task without falling victim to political or professional self-interest.
Start with Ronald George, the exceptionally well-respected retired state Supreme Court chief justice, who certainly understands checks and balances. Add a smart and adroit longtime political leader such as Bill Lockyer, the former state treasurer and attorney general, who understands the arcane and often confusing ways in which the Capitol works. Reach out to a less celebrated but extremely well-credentialed expert like Michele Siqueiros, president for the Campaign for College Opportunity, who understands the obstacles that prevent many young Californians from attending college. And make sure to include Monica Lozano, the current and highly regarded chair of the UC Regents, who understands the university’s system from the inside.
One theory attached to the personal motivations of the governor suggests that he has a particular interest in either building or surpassing the accomplishments of his father, who governed California in the 1960s. Among other things, this helps explain his focus on large-scale changes in water and transportation policy. But almost 60 years after Pat Brown developed the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education, which defined UC’s role and student access, an effort to assemble an all-star team to restore the University of California’s luster with the public would be a commendable accomplishment for the son. It would make his father proud.
Dan Schnur, who has worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, teaches political communications at the University of Southern California and UC Berkeley.
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The 1879 voter-approved revision of the California Constitution declared the university a “public trust” and gave its governing Board of Regents near total autonomy. The goal was to shield UC from the whims of state legislators. However, legislators do have leverage over the university in the budget process: UC gets about $3.4 billion of its $32.5 billion annual budget from the state’s general fund.
State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, is proposing a constitutional amendment that would prohibit UC from raising tuition and paying “substandard wages” to cleaning and maintenance workers in any year when more than 600 UC administrators earn a salary higher than the governor’s (now $190,000 a year).
What do you think? Do you support Galgiani’s proposal? Would you want the state to go further in curbing UC’s autonomy? Email Galgiani at firstname.lastname@example.org