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Political Road Map: So why can the UC regents thumb their noses at the Legislature?

Political Road Map: So why can the UC regents thumb their noses at the Legislature?
UC regents Hadi Makarechian, left, and Charlene Zettel and UC President Janet Napolitano listen to public comment during a 2016 meeting in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Fans of the University of California often tout the 10-campus system as being in a class by itself, first among peers in offering a quality education.

Recent events, though, offer a reminder of another unique aspect of the UC system: its legal independence, which is so powerful that in many cases university leaders can simply thumb their noses at the governor and the Legislature. It's the kind of freedom that may thwart any effort at reprimand in the wake of last week's stinging state audit alleging hidden money and high salaries in the office of UC President Janet Napolitano.

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And it's a freedom the university has enjoyed since California's current state Constitution was ratified in 1879.

The document's drafters worried about protecting UC from the politics of the day.

"Political prejudices and conspiracies creep into the institution and poison its best blood," said Jacob Freud, a San Francisco delegate, during debate at the 1879 constitutional convention.

The official record offers no hint of dissent. In fact, delegates haggled over mandating the study of agriculture (they didn't) more than they debated whether to give the University of California free reign.

The California State University system, in contrast, is very much a state government subsidiary. That asymmetry between the two systems means that bills introduced in the Legislature can "require" the Cal State Board of Trustees to do something but can do no more than make a "request" for the UC Board of Regents to do the same.

Two efforts over the last decade to remove UC's autonomy failed at the state Capitol, stymied by the university's legislative supporters. Both attempts were sparked by anger over efforts to raise tuition even while other budget-balancing ideas were ignored. The 2009 legislative proposal came on the heels of $400,000 salaries awarded to chancellors at UC San Francisco and UC Davis.

“It behooves us, and ultimately the voters, to revisit the concentrated power and autonomy of the UC Board of Regents, which appears to be out of touch with average working-class families,” said state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) in 2014 when introducing his constitutional amendment to strip UC of its independence from state government.

When Lara's first effort failed, he pivoted to focusing only on UC's regents. For generations, they've been appointed to 12-year terms by the governor, subject to confirmation by the state Senate. And they can be reappointed as many times as governors choose. Of the current regents, four have served more than one term. Sherry Lansing, the former chairwoman of Paramount Pictures, has served continuously since 1999. Lara's proposal would have instead capped lifetime service at 16 years, and only then if the regent was reconfirmed by the Senate every four years. By last summer, that proposal also had fizzled.

(A curious footnote to history is that accountability was an issue from the beginning. In the 1879 constitutional revision, one delegate floated the idea of UC regents being elected by voters during statewide elections.)

A national review shows that just six states have university systems with some form of independence from elected officials. And only Michigan and Minnesota give their flagship universities anything close to the freedom afforded the University of California.

California's lawmakers make decisions about state funding, but the rest is up to UC's regents and president. Certainly the university isn't immune to politics; in government, all decisions have a political element of some sort. The question is whether voters — who alone have the power to revise the state Constitution — would ever be willing to rethink the status quo. If not, UC's substantial power will remain safely guarded by the words written 138 years ago.

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