UC Regent George Kieffer talks tuition, university challenges

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UC Regent George Kieffer visited the UC Berkeley campus Tuesday, meeting with student leaders, campus faculty and administration in a daylong tour — his first visit since Chancellor Nicholas Dirks assumed office in June.

Kieffer met with representatives from the ASUC, the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate and the Graduate Assembly. The regent is also a composer, and he performed his own piece at a faculty dinner alongside UC Berkeley student musicians.

A lawyer based in Los Angeles, Kieffer was appointed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the UC Board of Regents in 2009.  He is a UC alumnus who earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UC Santa Barbara and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. He previously served as chair of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors from 1983 to 1985 and also served on the blue ribbon commission to review the California Master Plan for Higher Education.

The Daily Californian sat down with Kieffer to talk tuition, UC President Janet Napolitano and the challenges the university faces today. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

The Daily Californian: A continued tuition freeze is on the table for the 2014-15 academic year, but there is also talk of the university developing a more stable long-term tuition model to avoid a major hike a few years down the road. What can the regents do to keep tuition stable and affordable?

George Kieffer: An ultimate, continuing freeze is probably not going to work, just by the finances of the state and the increasing costs of everything. So we do want to avoid this thing where you don’t have any tuition hike for two or three years and then boom, a very significant increase. We are working with the governor’s office and the Department of Finance to try to create a long-term plan where we increase a small percentage every year. It’s disappointing we have to do that, but we have to do that, and that’s been the case since 1960-something when I first was protesting (as an undergraduate) against tuition increases, which were miniscule at the time  so a long-term, stable (tuition plan) so people get a feeling of what their commitment is going to be from the very beginning. At the same time we will continue with our financial aid.

DC: You said were involved in protests in your time as an undergraduate at UCSB, where you participated in student government. How do you relate now to protesters and students speaking in public comment at UC regents meetings and in other forums?

GK: Much as today, the student body officers are activists in their own way, but they end up being sometimes bridges between the most radical and the administration. Today, I would say things are more formulaic at the regents meetings. It’s a lot of theater — people come in with a plan of what they’re going to do, they protest, make their point and then walk out before the meeting even takes place. But I have sympathy for what a lot of the students are talking about. I don’t always agree with what they do, I don’t think it always serves their interests, but that’s for them to decide. And part of that whole experience is not only substantively getting something done, but it’s also a learning experience for everyone involved … It ends up being as much of your education as anything else that you’re doing at Berkeley.

DC: One of Napolitano’s announced initiatives is easing the transfer process for students coming into the UC system from community college. You were chair of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors in the past — how do you think the university can better help transfer students, and what do you hope to see from Napolitano regarding this issue?

GK: Part of it is trying to standardize some of the undergraduate courses so that transfer can be more easily effected – I think that’s probably the most important area. And then it’s counseling at the community college level … But there are a lot of expectations placed on community colleges — that somehow two years at community college is going to make up for twelve years of education before that and that a student is quickly going to turn around and become a candidate for Cal State or UC. There’s a lot of work to be done in that area. I think we need to get our expectations in order as to what kinds of preparation are necessary to be a good UC student. We need, from our point of view, to make the transfer as easy as possible, if they’re ready to do it.

DC: You are chair of the UC Regents Committee on Compensation. Gov. Jerry Brown has criticized high executive pay at the university in the past, as have others. What do you think of their concerns?

GK: First, I think that executive pay across the country in the private sector is beyond what it should be — so I begin with that. But the University of California has led the way in keeping compensation down and keeping top people … Our compensation is well below what the average is across the country, and we have the top public universities in the country … With respect to faculty, I strongly supported the hiring of UC Berkeley (Executive Vice Chancellor and) Provost (Claude) Steele at a fairly high compensation compared to others. But this is Berkeley  it deserves a top person. So I would like to see us keep compensation at as low a level as possible, but I don’t ever want to give up the ability to recruit the best to Berkeley.

DC: New UC President Janet Napolitano has drawn a lot of attention since taking office. What do you think about her relationship with the board and university as a whole thus far?

GK: She’s such a public figure that she’s given tremendous exposure to the university, both in California and across the country — and now internationally, leading the delegation for the United States (at the 2014 Winter Olympics). That doesn’t directly have to do with her job as president, but it draws a significant amount of attention to her and, in an indirect way, creates a lot more authority in her to seek the resources and fill chancellor positions. She’s a significant person in the United States and in the world, and she’s already shown that in terms of making the case for higher education; she’s going to be very, very good.

DC: Students in Berkeley and otherwise are concerned about Napolitano’s role as president and have continually met her appointment in protest. What is your response to their concerns?

GK: When we talk about students’ concerns, this is a small group of students who are extremely concerned. It’s not all students. When I’ve been on campuses, I have found that the majority of students are comfortable with the new president, but there are a significant number of students who remain uncomfortable, and I understand where they are coming from. I think the president has got to deal with that and overcome it. She is our president. She is not going to leave. We are not going to ask her to leave. I have great confidence in her. I think the students who are extremely concerned and upset about it have their reasons and have to decide how to go about these issues. My own personal point of view is that, at a certain point, it’s counterproductive. It will turn a significant number of people in the middle of the immigration debate against the kind of reforms that I would like to see take place … But it’s not for me to tell them how to make their case, so I presume they’ll continue to do what they think is right.

DC: The Board of Regents often seems far removed from UC students themselves. Do you think that UC students and the regents should engage face to face more often? Do you feel removed from students? Engaged?

GK: You have to work at it … It’s made more difficult for the regents because there are 10 different campuses for the university. The best thing you can do is visit campuses, spend time and continue to put yourself in the culture of the university. It’s not just the activists — it’s the engineers, it’s the chemists, it’s the musicians, it’s the entire body of people who support the university and students are certainly a key part of that and the one that I probably enjoy the most. What I didn’t know when I was a student is that I am just them but older … I got older. I learned a lot, and I forgot a lot. But I think that spending time is the best way to do it.

Libby Rainey is the lead higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @rainey_l.