UC campuses want more autonomy from Napolitano's office, study says

University of California President Janet Napolitano, left, speaks with Carol Christ after she is confirmed as chancellor of UC Berkeley by the Board of Regents last year. (Paul Chinn / Chronicle)

University of California President Janet Napolitano took the helm of the nation’s top public research university five years ago as a tough and seasoned politician and former Cabinet member in the Obama administration.

Her take-charge style and ambitions to make a mark startled some campus leaders accustomed to more low-key academics. But their sentiments were not always communicated to the top — and when the state auditor tried to assess campus views in a review of Napolitano’s office published last year, two of the president’s aides tampered with the surveys. The interference sparked a political uproar and prompted Napolitano to apologize publicly.

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Now campus leaders have spoken up — and say they want more autonomy from Napolitano’s office even as they value many of the systemwide services it provides.

Their opinions are expressed in a new study obtained by The Times that was commissioned by the UC Board of Regents after the audit interference fiasco. Consultants with Sjoberg Evashenk Consulting Inc. interviewed 74 senior campus leaders, including all 10 chancellors, to gauge their views of the services and programs provided by the UC Office of the President, often referred to as UCOP.

The study found widespread support for the vast majority of systemwide services, such as legal counsel, government relations, employee benefits and the retirement system. One longtime chancellor said the breadth of support for the president’s office is greater today than a decade ago, when a poll of campus leaders showed more dissatisfaction.

Senior administrators expressed the greatest concerns about the flurry of Napolitano’s systemwide presidential initiatives. Since 2013, Napolitano has launched several signature ventures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, expand access to food, promote free speech, increase collaboration with Mexico, aid UC students living in the U.S. illegally, and encourage students to pursue public service careers.

“Although most recognize that the President should have discretion to champion her own initiatives and agree that several of the initiative’s concepts were valid, uniformly we heard that initiatives were determined at UCOP and mandated to all campuses without enough meaningful advance deliberation and feedback from them,” the study said. “Nearly all voiced that most initiatives from UCOP were top-down driven and delivered in a command and control context.”

In an interview, Napolitano said she was working to become more collaborative and consultative. Campus leaders agree that she and her key executives have done so, the study said.

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“There’s a historic pendulum at the UC on the relationship between [the president’s office] and the campuses,” Napolitano told The Times. “Perhaps the pendulum got swung too far in one direction and we need to bring it back into balance.”

Campus leaders, who were not named in the study, also expressed concern about micromanagement of their decisions in such areas as staff salaries, outside speaking engagements and procurement. Some of the closer oversight was launched after political criticism of UC salaries and controversial moonlighting activities by former UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who ultimately resigned in 2016.

Central programs cited as somewhat duplicative included those dealing with technology transfers, undergraduate research, alumni affairs and marketing.

UC Berkeley, for instance, launched a year-long commemoration of its 150th anniversary this year. But the president’s office also rolled out a systemwide sesquicentennial celebration that sparked some concern about competition with Berkeley and UCLA’s own centennial next year.

The office’s proliferation of systemwide councils and committees has at times resulted in campus chancellors being bypassed in decisions involving their own staff, the report said.

Napolitano has begun to consider a potentially sweeping overhaul of her office — which oversees a $33-billion operation of 10 campuses, five medical centers, three national laboratories and global research — amid political criticism over its size and costs. Campus leaders told the consultants they wanted input into whether any programs are shifted to them.

The debate over who controls the University of California has raged for decades. Power has shifted among regents, the president and campus chancellors amid clashing views over whether UC should be one centrally controlled university system of 10 campuses or 10 autonomous campuses loosely aligned in a confederation.

Until the mid-1950s, the UC system was so centralized that presidents approved campus spending on taxi fares and file cabinets, according to a 2001 memoir by Clark Kerr, UC Berkeley’s first chancellor. (Regents approved chancellors for UCLA and UC Berkeley only in 1951.)

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When Kerr became UC president in 1958, he dramatically decentralized the system, cutting central staff by nearly three-quarters to 275 and giving the positions to campuses. He still believed in one university and had to fight off a “rebellion” for complete independence by then-UCLA Chancellor Franklin Murphy, wrote Kerr, who is widely regarded as UC’s most legendary leader.

Napolitano has opted for more central control, invoking the slogan “the power of 10” in marshaling all campuses to work toward overarching goals.

UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal said smaller campuses like his appreciate and depend on central services more than larger ones. Santa Cruz is grateful for the Office of the President’s help, he said, on such projects as preparing building plans for review by regents.

“It would be unbelievably expensive for me to staff up to do that work,” he said, “and so I don’t really want to do it — it would be bad for the campus.”

UCLA and UC Berkeley, in contrast, have long traditions of independence. In 1920, Berkeley’s faculty persuaded regents to require the president to consult with their leaders on all academic personnel matters — unprecedented power for university faculty at the time. More recently, Berkeley began to use letters of recommendation in some admissions decisions in a controversial move that broke with UC tradition and prompted regents to restrict the policy last year.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ praised the “wonderful things” the president’s office provides, such as legal services, but said it was time to consider ceding more control to campuses because they have grown, matured and become far more financially complex.

“We have very different campuses. We have very different missions. And things that treat us in a one-size-fits-all manner often don’t make sense,” Christ said in an interview.

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UCLA Chancellor Gene Block — who jokingly calls himself a “colonist” with inclinations toward more independence — said the tension is not unhealthy. “It’s some type of delicate balance between autonomy and oversight that we’re always trying to achieve,” he said.

Christ, Blumenthal and UC San Francisco Chancellor Sam Hawgood will join Napolitano and Board of Regents Chairman George Kieffer in a working group to seek ways to build on the study as UC potentially reshapes the relationship between the central office and campuses yet again.

“It’s an opportunity to address questions, increase efficiencies and correct misinformation,” Kieffer said. “It’s a time for introspection and action.”

Judging from UC history, any solution may be temporary.

“In microbattles over power — which are everywhere and all the time — there is never a final solution,” Kerr wrote.

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