Cut from the top to save UC

David N. Myers is the chair of the UCLA History Department.

As the University of California regents get down to the hard work of recruiting a new president before Mark G. Yudof retires in August, they might consider an even bolder move: a dramatic downsizing of the president’s office.

The current University of California Office of the President, or UCOP, is a labyrinthine bureaucracy that takes money from the 10 campuses where actual teaching and research happen. Instead of investing more authority in a president whose ambit is already absurdly huge -- an annual budget of $24 billion, 230,000 students, 191,000 faculty and staff -- the regents should scale back UCOP and empower each campus to make even more of its own decisions.

Many of my UC faculty colleagues suspect the UCOP operation in Oakland has two objectives: to blunt any campus initiatives through bureaucratic overkill, and to impose top-down guidelines that show how out of touch it is with life on campus. What we know is that UCOP charges each campus for “institutional support services,” and that the process often involves distributing money back to the campuses. This makes UCOP an expensive and inefficient middleman.

These complaints might be dismissed as the rants of absent-minded professors. But Robert J. Birgeneau, who retires June 1 as chancellor of UC Berkeley and knows the ins and outs of UC as well as anyone, has voiced a similar thought. In a white paper he coauthored last year, “Modernizing Governance at the University of California,” he and his colleagues called for “reducing the remoteness of governance and allowing decisions to be made closer to the front line.” The increasing complexity of educational and financial tasks at each university makes centralized administrative control simply too slow and cumbersome.


Birgeneau’s paper proposes that new boards at each university could provide general oversight, approve budgets, set tuition and authorize campus enrollment caps. I would add that they could also make quick and local-minded decisions on a whole host of bureaucratic matters that currently get lost in the UCOP maze in Oakland.

A serious commitment to delegating authority would require scaling back the UCOP bureaucracy significantly. The Office of the President has some 1,400 employees. Its budget is more than $500 million, of which more than 20% is spent on the executive office of the president, other UCOP senior leaders and the administration of the Board of Regents and the UC Academic Senate.

Yudof tried, to reduce costs, cutting down the number of UCOP employees from 1,900 five years ago. But the times require far bolder action, including shifting both employees and millions of dollars to the universities themselves.

This would not be the first decentralization effort. When Clark Kerr became UC president in 1957, he immediately began returning power and resources to the campus level. He transferred 750 of 1,025 UCOP employees to campuses, fortified the position of chancellor at each institution and, in the process, strengthened the UC-wide Academic Senate. More than a half-century later, most UC schools have achieved individual reputations for excellence. As a result, it is now time to move beyond Kerr’s vision of a single federated university -- at once ineffective and a myth -- to a more lithe confederation of connected but autonomous campuses.


The 10 UC institutions are already, for all intents and purposes, autonomous units. We set our own curricula, hire our own faculty and pay for our own physical plants, and now we also raise our own money to support our operations. Accordingly, as dwindling state funding is replaced by private money, the great challenge is to retain a robust sense of public mission at each UC. One of the most important ways that we can do so is by focusing on the local communities where we are embedded.

This relationship between university and community poses a stark contrast to the UCOP in Oakland. As Kerr succinctly put it, “The university-wide system has no alumni, no students, no faculty, no sports teams, no one to cheer for it.”

Students, faculty and campus administrators know what the most pressing challenges are. And we are our own best advocates; we know who our students are and what our faculty can accomplish. We have loyal alumni who understand the value of excellent and accessible higher education. The UC president, by contrast, is rather disengaged from the most compelling facets of campus life.

This is not to say that UCOP could or should disappear overnight. It still performs valuable tasks such as administering systemwide research collaborations, avoiding unnecessary duplication of retirement or benefit programs, assuring that new campuses such as Merced are nurtured as they mature and advocating for the UC system with the governor and Legislature. These are serious responsibilities.

Still, one could easily envision a much smaller administrative office in Oakland to oversee the key systemwide programs, as well as a skilled lobbying shop to promote the interests of the campuses in Sacramento. Alternatively, one could also imagine instead of one president, a rotating chairmanship of a Council of Chancellors that would represent the best interests of all 10 universities (not just the biggest, UCLA and Berkeley) to the governor and regents. Above all, one could imagine greater administrative and fiscal efficiency through local control.

Devolving power and transferring resources from the centralized administration may be a painful pill for the new UC president. But these steps are key to ensuring that the 10 UC campuses will be more responsive, accessible and competitive in the new age of public higher education.