Records show results of a survey by auditors were altered after intervention by UC administration

Officials at some University of California campuses changed their responses to surveys from state auditors after the UC Office of the President intervened, resulting in more positive reviews of the administration, according to documents released as part of a scathing audit of UC financial practices.

UC officials disputed the findings, saying Wednesday that UC President Janet Napolitano’s office did not censor the responses. But State Auditor Elaine Howle said her office is continuing an inquiry into the allegation that the UC administration interfered in the survey process to determine whether it violated policies or laws and should be referred for further action.

“My legal staff is looking at it to determine whether we’ve got a situation where there might be an improper governmental activity,” Howle said. “Then once we complete some of that assessment, that will determine whether we conduct an investigation internally or whether we make any referrals.”

In addition, two legislative committees have scheduled a Tuesday joint hearing at the Capitol on the audit and the allegations of interference.

UC Deputy Chief of Staff Bernie Jones said the assertion of interference was groundless. He said internal audit directors at some campuses called the president’s office last October with “some degree of concern” after receiving a 52-page survey on central services. Jones said they asked for assistance in filling them out, so he set up a conference call with the campuses a few days later and told them the responses should be “factual, within the audit’s scope” and reflective of the chancellor’s views — but that no effort was made to dictate their responses.

“I really doubled down on how vitally important it was that the campuses own their responses, and they were the ones who sent it,” Jones said Wednesday.

Howle’s audit, released Tuesday, asserted that the UC Office of the President paid excessive salaries and benefits to its top executives and did not disclose to the UC Board of Regents, the Legislature and the public $175 million in budget reserve funds that could have helped stave off a 2.5% tuition increase scheduled for this fall.

Howle alleged in the audit and a letter to the governor and the Legislature that “the Office of the President intentionally interfered with our audit process.”

In a video message Wednesday to UC employees, Board of Regents Chairwoman Monica Lozano said the panel is taking the state auditor’s recommendations seriously but has “unequivocal confidence” in the Office of the President.

The auditor’s survey was an attempt to find out how administrators at the 10 UC campuses viewed the effectiveness of the Office of the President and whether administrators at the campuses and central headquarters were duplicating their efforts.

“Although we explicitly asked each campus not to share its survey results with anyone outside of the campus, we learned in February 2017 that the Office of the President had requested campuses to send their survey responses to it,” the audit said, “and that the deputy chief of staff of the Office of the President organized a conference call with all campuses to discuss the survey and screened the surveys before the campuses submitted them to us.”

The audit said Howle’s office asked Napolitano’s deputy chief of staff to provide her with copies of the original survey results to compare them with the final versions turned over to auditors.

“When we compared the prescreened versions of the surveys to the versions the campuses subsequently submitted to us, we found that the responses were changed to make the Office of the President appear more efficient and effective,” the audit said.

Emails released Wednesday by Howle’s office showed that Jones closely coordinated with campuses in reviewing their survey responses. In one series of emails last November, UCLA senior advisor Yolanda Gorman sent Jones a survey response. In a Nov. 29 email, Jones told her that UC Chief Financial Officer Nathan Brostrom had spoken to UCLA Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Steve Olsen about reconciling UCLA’s various survey responses.

“Once I give it a final review and what Nathan and Steve discussed has been reconciled, we should be good to go,” Jones wrote to Gorman.

When asked about the exchange, Jones said Olsen’s initial response needed to align with a “factually accurate” representation of how the president’s office calculates assessments on campuses for the central services and programs it provides.

Jones gave emails sent between him and campuses to The Times, along with revised and final copies of some surveys, which he said would demonstrate that he never ordered revisions, but only asked campus administrators to consider some changes.

UC San Diego, for instance, originally said it was “dissatisfied” with transparency over the campus assessments in its survey response, but the final version was changed to “satisfied.” Jones said he flagged the initial answer to see if it reflected Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla’s view and that campus leaders changed it, not him.

UC Irvine’s response originally said that a systemwide initiative to expand online learning “has a number of challenges and this is an example of an initiative that does duplicate efforts on the individual campuses in a way that many feel is not value added.” The response also noted that a UC website offering reports on faculty diversity that provided “useful comparisons with our University peers” has been taken offline.

Both points were taken out of the campus’ final survey response.

Updates from Sacramento »

UC Riverside’s original survey response said an online learning initiative had been helpful, but accounting of students had not been as smooth as desired. That comment was retained in the final version. But a suggestion to improve the initiative by requiring training and mentoring for faculty members who were teaching online learning courses for the first time was deleted.

Several changes were made to UC Santa Cruz’s initial survey.

Jones told UC Santa Cruz to consider “reframing” or deleting a suggestion for greater systemwide coordination to recruit low-income students, asking administrators there to take into account the central office’s efforts in coordinating disbursement of state funds for underserved schools.

“As you will see, I addressed 98% of your concerns and I made a number of additional changes as well (all in a direction you would not find problematic),” UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal wrote to Jones in a Nov. 23 email. Jones provided the email to The Times.

UC Santa Cruz’s initial survey raised issues about the UCPath system, which is aimed at centralizing personnel, payroll and academic processes.

“Some Office of the President initiatives, such as UCPath were at first very poorly and inefficiently run, but they seem to have figured it out and are on the way to bringing a huge and — often — failure prone project to a successful conclusion,” the initial response said. “The key issue is that the Office of the President provides the leadership, vision, and public relations acumen to keep the University on the best course.”

That paragraph was removed and the final survey response instead read: “The services and leadership provided by the Office of the President are crucial for the success of the system. Especially for a smaller campus like ours, it would be both expensive and inefficient to provide those services ourselves. In addition, there is a true public policy benefit to the role that the Office of the President plays in providing uniform standards….”

When asked to comment on the surveys, UC Irvine and UC Riverside referred calls to the president’s office. UC Santa Cruz and UC San Diego did not provide a response.

Howle said the surveys had to be excluded from the audit findings because the Office of the President “inappropriately” intervened, tainting the results.

The allegations of intervention will be explored during the legislative hearing Tuesday, said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), one of the legislators who sought the audit.

“That’s very troubling,” he said of the intervention. “All of those things are damaging.”

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com; teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter:@mcgreevy99,

Twitter:@TeresaWatanabe

McGreevy reported from Sacramento and Watanabe from Los Angeles.

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