Editorial: Budget-cutter Gov. Brown could do more to restore UC’s health

Jerry Brown at a UC regents meeting
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at a UC Board of Regents meeting in 2013. On Thursday, the board voted to increase tuition by 5% each of the next five years despite Brown’s objections.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

For all that he’s a regent of the University of California, Gov. Jerry Brown is not an expert on academia or modern trends in higher education. What he brings to the deliberations over UC’s budget isn’t the perspective of a visionary seeking to maintain and build on the university’s greatness, but the parsimonious eye of a governor who is responsible for the entire state budget and the mulish stubborness of a politician who is not used to losing.

His ideas for reforming UC have little if anything to do with educational excellence and a lot to do with budget-cutting. More three-year bachelor’s degrees. More online courses. Credit for military service or time spent working. More transfer students from community colleges. Less research and publication. Creativity and discipline are important in curbing state spending, but those are attempts to do things on the cheap, an assembly-line move-'em-out approach that is antithetical to the goal of great higher education. It’s certainly not reflective of the kind of college experience Brown enjoyed during his brief time at UC Berkeley.

After the Board of Regents ignored Brown’s opposition and approved a five-year schedule of 5% tuition increases — which could be canceled or reduced if UC receives more than the expected 4% increase in state funding — the governor returns to Sacramento in a situation unusual for him: His political wiles and strongly held beliefs failed to carry the day. But that doesn’t mean the battle of wills is over. Not by a long shot.

The governor could stick with his 4% raise, understanding that the tuition will increase under the regents’ plan, and accept this as a compromise solution that makes no one happy, especially not students. He could give in and let UC have everything it wants, remembering that much of the campaigning for his Proposition 30 tax increase was accomplished by college students who were led to believe funding would be restored to their schools. That scenario is about as likely as Brown deciding that the California bullet train is a bad idea.

He could take revenge by eliminating any increase for UC, which would rightly make him appear petty and vindictive, willing to harm the young adults of this state, and lose academic talent to colleges elsewhere.

Or the state can hope for something better from Brown, a recognition that although he’s the expert on cutting budgets, he’s not the voice of authority on what UC needs. He could negotiate a bigger state funding increase with UC President Janet Napolitano in exchange for more reasonable concessions on balancing the books. Those could include more on-time graduations, allowing students to test out of more course requirements and halting the ridiculously large salary increases for high-earning administrators. Brown is properly regarded as a master politician, often guided by keen pragmatism. That’s what is needed to restore UC to financial and academic health.

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