California higher education hangs in the balance as UC, Cal State search for new leaders
In a rare confluence that will shape the future of California higher education, the state’s two top university jobs are open, high-profile vacancies that position its leaders as national pacesetters because of the size and status of the two systems.
The dual searches at the University of California and California State University have generated a daunting list of desired job qualifications. The new chiefs will be expected to figure out how to meet enormous admission demands, increase student diversity, raise academic achievement, lower costs, secure stable sources of money and deal with fierce politics. All this while improving the quality and prestige of two of the nation’s most popular and renowned public university systems.
And this must be accomplished with limited state funding and salaries well below their comparable peers.
“They probably are two of the most important institutions on the planet in terms of their role and mission,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University who is viewed as one of the nation’s most innovative higher education leaders and is often mentioned as a potential candidate for the UC job.
The native Californian said he was too busy “doing my job as hard as I can” to even think about either position.
Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, summed up the ideal skills as “walking on water with a thick skin.”
The two jobs — open after the recent announcements by UC President Janet Napolitano and Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White that they will step down next summer — share broad similarities and significant differences.
Cal State is the largest and most diverse four-year university system in the nation, educating 482,000 students on 23 campuses who are drawn from the top 40% of California’s annual high school graduates. The system is often referred to as the “job engine” of California, filling many of the state’s most pressing workforce needs, including half of the teachers and more than half of the nurses.
The 10-campus UC system educates 280,000 students who rank in the top 12.5% of the state’s senior class and is California’s lead generator of PhDs, in addition to its bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The system is distinguished by its massive and top-ranked research enterprise, five medical centers, three affiliated national laboratories and an overall budget of $37.2 billion, bigger than those of more than 30 states.
Both systems enroll far higher proportions of low-income and first-generation students than do similar universities in other states. But both are struggling to close achievement gaps for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented minority students.
The UC job is “probably the most complex and challenging job in higher education,” said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Assn. of American Universities, which represents North America’s top 65 research universities. “It could also be a very exciting job because the platform the UC system has is enormous and enormously important.”
Napolitano has been credited with using that platform to support immigrant students and sexual assault survivors. But some higher education leaders say the next UC president must step up to champion an even broader task: marshaling public support for the value of a university education amid mounting skepticism about rising costs and perceived political biases.
The UC regents recently released a list of 29 criteria for the next leader based on closed-door consultations with committees of students, staff, faculty and alumni. The top two criteria have drawn particular attention: knowledge of the academic enterprise and a demonstrated track record promoting diversity, equity and inclusion.
The regents themselves are believed to be the most diverse board in UC history, with both Chairman John A. Pérez and Vice Chairwoman Cecilia Estolano of Mexican descent and nearly half of the 26 voting board members Latino, African American and Asian American. Pérez has said UC particularly needs to work harder to increase geographical diversity, as most students come from urban areas.
Faculty were thrilled by the regents’ stated preference for candidates with “exceptional academic administrative experience” and the highest possible degree in their field. At recent faculty town halls at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara, participants lamented that regents ignored their desire for an academic in the last presidential search six years ago when they selected Napolitano, then U.S. Homeland Security secretary and a former Arizona governor.
Although many faculty eventually came to appreciate Napolitano, they said it took time for her to learn how to manage the UC system and consult with them on key issues as required by the UC tradition of shared governance, which gives the Academic Senate a uniquely powerful voice in university operations.
Other top priorities named in a UC Santa Barbara faculty survey were a commitment to academic freedom, shared governance, research, graduate education and budgetary transparency.
At both sessions, faculty members complained about the “secrecy” of past search processes. Regents, however, have announced that they would hold open public forums at UC Davis on Dec. 13 and at UCLA on Jan. 14.
Cal State has held four public forums, with two more planned at its campuses in San Marcos on Dec. 3 and in Fresno on Dec. 5. At a recent Long Beach forum, speakers said they wanted the next chancellor to champion full access to all eligible applicants, more faculty diversity, support for students with disabilities and increased programs for prison inmates.
For their part, UC students want a leader who is familiar with California public education and will commit to meet regularly with them, as Napolitano did, said Varsha Sarveshwar, a UC Berkeley senior and president of the UC Student Assn. Top issues, she said, include affordable housing, food security and meeting the basic needs of all students.
UC insiders say hundreds of names will probably be submitted for an initial look before the field is narrowed to serious candidates and a decision is made by regents, possibly next spring.
Potential candidates named at the faculty meetings included Crow and F. King Alexander, president of Lousiana State University who previously headed Cal State Long Beach for seven years and has made a national mark with his advocacy of greater federal partnerships and state public funding for higher education.
In an interview, Alexander said key challenges for California higher education were the enormous demand for seats in university systems with limited capacity and state funding levels that, while recovered from deep cuts after the Great Recession, remain well below levels two decades ago. While more online learning is part of the answer, he said, the state must increase funding “if it wants to remain the nation’s beacon of affordable higher education.”
Asked if he was interested in either job, Alexander said he is leaving his options “open” — adding that his wife is “particularly fond of the weather in Long Beach.”
“It’s a great place,” he said. “California public higher education is kind of like the Rose Bowl — the granddaddy of them all.”
Crow is both widely admired for his visionary rebuild of traditional higher education models and criticized for his aggressive use of educational technology.
In an interview, he said UC and Cal State both need to figure out how to better use technology and innovation to vastly open access to both traditional college students and adult learners. He also said campuses need more freedom to launch entrepreneurial projects and partnerships that can help them raise money and lessen dependence on state funding.
Crow has used all of those approaches at ASU, building enrollment to 120,000 students — more than one-third of them online — in what he calls a New American University model that offers wide access over the selectivity favored by many elite universities.
“The old model has run its course,” Crow said. “It’s time for new ways to engage while not giving up one iota of quality or one iota of excellence.”
Other names mentioned for the UC job include Michael Drake, who is stepping down next year from the helm of Ohio State University and who previously served as chancellor of UC Irvine and UC vice chancellor for health affairs. Under his leadership, Ohio State set all-time highs in student retention and graduation rates, diversity, applications and research expenditures while reducing debt burdens. He also launched a tuition guarantee program for each incoming class of students, a model that UC regents are currently considering. Drake could not be reached for comment.
Past and present UC chancellors and Cal State presidents may also be considered.
Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said former legislators and governors should not be overlooked because educators who came up through the ranks are not always willing to shake up the status quo as needed. UC, he said, needs a leader willing to look at the system’s at-times inefficient use of facilities and relatively light teaching loads.
For outside candidates, one potential sticking point could be pay. In 2018, Napolitano earned $627,000 in total compensation and White $493,000, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education database. Drake earned $1.2 million and Crow $1.1 million, two of 17 university leaders whose pay topped seven figures. Pay at top private universities is even higher.
“The challenge for all public universities is that many, many candidates view those [top] positions as patently unattractive,” said Richard Chait, a Harvard University professor emeritus of higher education. “Public university presidents are embroiled in a thicket of politics, constantly in the crosshairs, and the money is not there.”
But Robert Anderson, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, predicted plenty of candidates will be drawn to the California opportunities in order to make a difference in such a large, diverse state and “move the needle both nationally and globally.”
“I really don’t believe someone will come to this job for a paycheck,” said Mitchell of the American Council on Education. “The right person will come to this job for a mission and a legacy.”
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