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The UC lesson

The University of California has itself to blame for the current wrath of legislators. It has approved dismayingly lavish packages for executives, conducted too much business in secret and at least initially resisted calls for reform. Its leaders’ misdeeds have been frustrating and high-profile -- but they amount to a small part of what is overall a well-run public university system that is managing under trying circumstances to protect its functions of top-tier education and renowned research. Two proposed amendments to the state Constitution that would strip UC of autonomy are unnecessary and potentially damaging. They should be kept off the ballot.

State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has been leading the campaign to place UC under the Legislature’s direct authority, much as the California State University operates now. As the author of bills seeking to restrain what he considers to be UC’s excesses, including chancellors’ salaries of several hundred thousand dollars a year, Yee understandably feels thwarted when his legislation can only urge the Board of Regents to change its policies rather than order it to do so.

The university raised public eyebrows when it paid a manager $125,000 in relocation costs to move the 70 miles from Santa Cruz to Oakland and granted full retirement pay to a campus police chief who was immediately rehired at a higher salary. It didn’t help when UC responded to Yee’s latest effort with a haughty statement that called his goal “absurd” and disparaged the Legislature for the current fiscal crisis and conditions at public schools. As a respected academic institution funded in part by the public, UC should abandon its too-cool-for-accountability attitude, acknowledge its errors and vow to be worthy of the taxpayers’ trust.

That said, many of the high salaries may have been necessary to attract the right personnel. At most, they add up to a barely noticeable fraction of the university’s budget. Under-funding, not executive perks, has been most responsible for recent tuition hikes. As an elite research institution that draws brainpower and business to California, UC’s mission is different from that of Cal State; it should be protected from political incursions that would interfere with hiring decisions, harm its reputation and impose inefficient bureaucratic controls.

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Yee should credit the regents for changing several policies to provide more transparency and require more review of hiring decisions, even if they have done so more slowly and reluctantly than he would have liked. UC also has frozen executive salaries in response to recent criticism. The Legislature already has mechanisms -- public pressure, funding -- to curb UC’s worst inclinations. It can turn to those when it needs to, rather than trying to grab the university’s reins.


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