A smarter UC

Public agencies generally rebel against budget reductions, but often — if the cuts don’t reach bone — they emerge from the process as leaner, smarter organizations that put more of their resources toward core functions.

We like to think that’s what will happen at the University of California in a few years. The university has been going through painful times, cutting course offerings this year to the point where students were hard-pressed to find needed classes, and raising tuition for the 2010-11 academic year by about 25% — levels that make it significantly harder to afford. That’s all the more reason to appreciate President Mark G. Yudof’s plan to re-envision UC’s administrative operations in a move that will save $500 million a year.

Instead of allowing its campuses to run like 10 independent schools, UC will streamline administrative functions such as payroll and purchasing by centralizing them into one systemwide operation. That will dramatically trim the need for staff, which would be reduced by attrition; it also would give the university more leverage to bring down costs in bulk purchasing and other contracts. Just as important, UC will continue to give its campuses the same autonomy they’ve always had when it comes to academic matters. Any savings that would come from centralizing the educational and research functions of the university could not make up for the loss of prestige that would afflict the separate schools.

Administrative efficiencies have been suggested for years, and it’s to UC’s shame that it didn’t move earlier to implement them. But Yudof has been in the job for less than two years, and he moved quickly to appoint a financial officer to oversee a move to a more efficient operation.

These are the kinds of changes we have urged Yudof to consider instead of continued fee hikes. And they must be accomplished while preserving two aspects of UC’s tradition: excellence as a research and teaching university that draws elite talent and entrepreneurship to California and produces the top minds of the future; and its public mission to provide an affordable, top-quality education to the state’s highest achieving students.

That’s not to say that UC will now be flush. The transition will take a few years, and the university continues to suffer from budget cuts and an operational deficit.

Yudof’s cost-saving move should not be seen by Sacramento as an opportunity to cut the university yet further. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did the right thing by not only sparing UC additional cuts in his proposed budget but adding back $305 million. The extra money might not survive the budget process; it’s hard to justify added funding for college students when the budget would strip services from the state’s neediest residents. Still, Schwarzenegger wisely recognized that UC is one of the institutions in this state that still functions well and continues to earn the admiration of the rest of the nation.