Gov. Jerry Brown may have met his match in Janet Napolitano. And the University of California president definitely is confronting a skilled adversary in the governor.
Caught in the middle are the UC students who are being held hostage by Napolitano and the UC Board of Regents in their demand for significantly more state money.
Pay the ransom, UC is telling Sacramento, or we'll hit the kids with higher tuition.
The regents, over Brown's opposition, approved Napolitano's plan last week to raise tuition by up to 5% in each of the next five years. By 2019, tuition could climb from its current $12,192 annually to $15,564. Counting fees, books, room and board, UC now costs a California resident $33,000 per year.
Brown and the Legislature could "buy out" the first year's tuition hike for about $100 million, UC says.
The governor has offered to increase state funding by 4% — roughly $120 million — each year for the next two if tuition stays flat. He has hiked it 5% each of the last two under a tuition freeze.
But Napolitano says UC needs more — an additional 9% annually — to pay for recent pay increases, rising retirement costs, hiring extra instructors and admitting more students.
First, Brown says, UC needs to spend existing dollars more wisely — "reduce the university's cost structure, while increasing [student] access and quality." He wants Napolitano to create a committee to study such stuff.
Perhaps later, the UC president curtly told the governor at the regents meeting. "We don't have time to wait for another commission," she said. "Maybe we'll actually get some really nifty ideas out of it. That's always possible. But the budget process moves along."
Indeed, Brown's number-crunchers are crafting next year's state budget proposal that he'll send to the Legislature in January. He'll be answering Napolitano and the regents then.
Brown is upset, I'm told, but in truth he lives for such full-throated debates.
"I love the life of the mind," he commented to the regents. "And I love the exchange with the university. I know it probably doesn't give you pleasure, but this gives me great pleasure."
Brown has always had an edgy relationship with UC.
Back when he was governor the first time, he didn't win faculty fans by opining that professors could be paid less because they earned "psychic income."
His father, Gov. Pat Brown, had spent lavishly on UC — there wasn't any tuition then — and built three new campuses.
In his early career, Jerry was in quiet rebellion against his dad's old-style politics. He was then and still is a contrarian. And he's particularly a spending skeptic, a trait that endears him to taxpayers.
In an autobiography, former UC President David P. Gardner went on about how the university "suffered under Jerry Brown," who, he asserted, viewed UC as "elitist."
Actually, Brown graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor's in classics. His mother also went there, he told the regents. "So I've been appreciating the University of California since as long as I can remember."
That didn't cut him any slack, however. The regents and Napolitano said higher tuition was needed because, over the years, the state had reduced funding. The state did trim back during the recession when it was broke.
Brown noted that when he entered office in 2011, the state was $27 billion in the hole. "We had to make changes in the way we do business," he said. And UC should too, he added. "There's enough money."
Professors should teach more and do less research, he has said. Administrators shouldn't be paid so generously — into the $300,000 and $400,000 range, plus big perks.
UC contends it has to compete against Ivy League schools for talent.
Nonsense, the governor implied. "Money doesn't buy everything in this world," he told Regent Richard Blum, a wealthy investor and husband of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "If it did, I wouldn't have anybody working for me."
UC "doesn't have to follow the Ivy League" to recruit, Brown argued. "People will get very excited about an institution that has a moral depth that transcends the vagaries of the marketplace.... This is not Wall Street. This is the University of California, and we want to be different."
Napolitano, former Arizona governor and U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, is boldly forcing the funding issue in Sacramento.
"I don't know whether she's extremely brilliant or very naive," says Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), a regent because of her legislative leadership.
"If you really want to convince someone you need something, I don't think this is the way to do it — try to embarrass the governor and the Legislature."
Napolitano is tenacious and has been around the track politically, but not this one. I've never known of a governor who lost a fight to UC.
Brown has plenty of weapons to use — including a nuclear option. He and the Legislature could completely blow up UC's scheme by reducing state funding by every dollar raised from increased tuition. Then they could negate the students' burden by using the state savings to provide tax credits for the tuition-payers.
Brown also has enormous political capital. He just won a landslide reelection, enjoys widespread popularity and on tuition has the backing of both parties, the students and their parents.
The compromise: More state money and less UC extravagance. No tuition hike. Release the hostages.