The Legislature Has Nothing To Teach UC

EducationUniversity of CaliforniaGovernmentColleges and UniversitiesPolitics

Over the years, California legislators have repeatedly meddled with the independence of the University of California. That doesn't make California unique, but in a system dedicated to the highest academic and scholarly standards, the meddling can badly demoralize the enterprise. Often when it's happened, it's caused long-lasting damage.

Now, ignoring that history, a bipartisan group led by state Sens. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) and Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) is at it again. Playing to voters upset at some of UC's slippery and costly executive compensation packages, they propose to eliminate UC's historic autonomy and subject the world's greatest public university to the control of the Legislature, a body hardly famous for its own fiscal responsibility.

Given UC's recent penchant for cozy finagling of executive compensation and perks and its often opaque budgeting practices, some cage-rattling may be in order. It's not surprising that people are upset that new chancellors at UC San Francisco and UC Davis are going to receive salaries of more than $400,000 at a moment when undergraduate fees are about to go up again, this time by 9.3%.

But the constitutional amendment being proposed by the three state senators and their Assembly partners -- which wouldn't just interfere with the university's constitutional autonomy but would end it -- could make past examples of interference look benign.

Probably the most notorious of those examples was the intrusion of the McCarthy-era state Senate Committee on Un-American Activities under Democrat Hugh Burns, and its predecessor, the Joint Legislative Committee on Un-American Activities under Republican Jack Tenney. The two committees' self-imposed goal was to drive leftists and other supposed subversives from UC's faculties and off its campuses.

Other states had un-American activities committees between the 1940s and the 1960s, but California's remained in existence longer and had a more detrimental effect than most, particularly in pushing the often compliant, and sometimes eager, Board of Regents to institute the divisive loyalty oath program that drove a score of distinguished faculty members from UC Berkeley and UCLA, and earned the system the condemnation of faculty groups from coast to coast. Each UC campus was also to have a "contact man" with the Burns committee. Among those who were driven out was physicist David Saxon, who refused in 1950 to take a loyalty oath -- and who, in an ironic turn, later became UC's president.

Clark Kerr, who was Berkeley's chancellor during much of that period and UC president from 1958 to 1967, was himself a target. And although he successfully refuted the accusations leveled against him -- that he was a communist, possibly even a foreign agent -- the residue of the charges almost certainly contributed to his summary firing a few days after Ronald Reagan became governor in 1967. Reagan twisted arms on the Board of Regents to get Kerr dismissed, but it was two decades of witch hunting by the Tenney and Burns committees, and Kerr's honorable role in resisting it, that created the climate. The real targets, as Kerr wrote later, were not communists but liberals.

As the Kerr firing indicated, it isn't just legislators who like to meddle in UC's academic affairs. In 1995, in the case of the regents' vote to end affirmative action in UC hiring and admissions, it was Gov. Pete Wilson who, in collaboration with Regent Ward Connerly, applied the heat.

Still, it's generally in the Legislature that the pressure originates. Most recently, it was the powerful Latino caucus, which pushed hard to make it easier for more minority students to be admitted after race-based preferences were eliminated.

The resulting changes, first proposed by UC President Richard Atkinson but hurried along by the political pressure, radically shifted UC eligibility from a system based largely on the hard numbers of grades and test scores to one with more subjective -- some would say squishy -- criteria. Those criteria, including "comprehensive review" of each applicant's entire background, including handicaps he or she has overcome, and automatic eligibility for all students in the top 4% of their high school class, made UC more accessible to many of the black and Latino students who could not be admitted after 1995, when the regents -- and later Proposition 209 -- brought affirmative action to an end.

We'll forever debate whether those changes brought a fairer process and a more diverse and interesting student body. But political pressure nearly always jeopardizes academic independence and public confidence. California's long-standing constitutional protection for UC's autonomy that Yee and company want to eliminate recognizes those dangers.

The loyalty oath travesty made it obvious that UC's constitutional independence can be violated without anything like the formal provisions of the proposal in the Legislature. As long as UC is a public, tax-supported university whose budget is drawn in Sacramento, it will be vulnerable to legislative pressure. But the proposed amendment would authorize and institutionalize such meddling -- and that would be a big step backward.

One thing that makes UC special is that it has been able to balance academic distinction with its democratic mission and public responsibility. If the Legislature ever got formal control, there'd be no telling what mischief -- in hiring, in curriculum, in setting research priorities, in admissions preferences -- the currents of political fashion could bring.

Given the Legislature's dim reputation with the voters, the amendment is likely to fail at the ballot box even if it passes out of the Legislature. But it's a sure sign of the temptations that forever lurk under the Capitol dome, and of the ongoing danger to what may be California's greatest public asset.

Peter Schrag, the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, is the author of "California: America's High-Stakes Experiment."

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