UC Board of Regents wary of unreliable state funds

Anna Vignet/File
The Board of Regents discussed several possible solutions to its budget woes at its Wednesday meeting.

SAN FRANCISCO — Following the release of Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget on Monday and with the threat of a possible $1 billion cut to the UC looming overhead, the UC Board of Regents’ meeting Wednesday was focused on long-term solutions to create stability to counter the state’s unreliable and decreasing funding.

At the meeting, the regents discussed short-term solutions to deal with the $500 million cut the UC faces, improvements to financial aid, long-term plans for addressing the state’s reduced funding and the irreparable damages a $1 billion cut to the university could have on its core ideals of access, affordability and excellence.

“It’s been a very, very unstable situation, particularly over the last three years,” said UC President Mark Yudof at the meeting. “We cannot take the shortcut at this point in our history. We can do some very destructive things. It can take over 100 years to establish a great research university … but they can be destroyed in a very short period of time.”

At the meeting, UC leaders reiterated the need for flexibility in developing and implementing solutions to handle the cuts but said no decisions would be made on proposed solutions until a later date.

Cuts to state funding for the UC are beginning to surpass potential short-term solutions, said Patrick Lenz, the UC vice president for budget, in his presentation to the board. He said strategies to handle the $500 million in cuts include initiatives at both a campus and UC level to increase efficiency as well as outright cuts to programs and budgets.

A central idea that was emphasized at the meeting was shifting the focus from short-term solutions to exploring longer-term plans to mitigate the impact of the state’s inconsistent and rapidly declining funding for higher education.

“Everybody clearly is looking towards longer-term solutions,” said Regent Monica Lozano. “The idea of being buffeted around year after year … the lack of predictability, the lack of stability is not good for the students, it’s not good for the families and it’s certainly not good for chancellors who are trying to plan ahead.”

Other regents said California is an “unreliable partner,” saying the state has declined to meet its commitment to fund higher education in recent years and that the UC has to plan accordingly. While UC Board of Regents Chair Russell Gould said “healthy skepticism” was appropriate, Regent Richard Blum said his faith in the state was better characterized as “frigging disbelief.”

“I’m all in favor of you and the administration trying to come to an agreement with the state, but if you had one, why would you believe it?” Blum said. “Once fooled, shame on you, twice fooled — we’re into tenth fooled … I don’t want to discourage you from doing this, but I wouldn’t count on it for one night’s sleep.”

A potential long-term solution that was raised that generated much debate was differential tuition by campus — an idea that has stirred controversy in the weeks leading up to the meeting.

While some said that all options needed to be on the table, others cautioned that differential tuition would have a multitude of negative impacts on the university, including increasing counterproductive competition between campuses and unequal qualities of education from campus to campus.

“At some point, if we start to say you’re getting a different product at a different campus, what we end up doing is we create an expectation that a higher price campus is better, and that expectation becomes a reality,” said Daniel Simmons, chair of the UC systemwide Academic Senate.

In light of the potential increases to tuition, improvements to financial aid were also discussed at the meeting. Proposals included increasing access for students at all income levels by raising the income ceiling for financial aid eligibility.

“We’re trying very, very hard to build on what I think is a great legacy at the University of California — admitting low and middle-income students,” Yudof said.

A contingency plan for the potential $1 billion in cuts outlined in Brown’s budget summary for the UC was not presented at the meeting. According to Nathan Brostrom, the UC executive vice president for business operations, this was due to the fact that campuses are at the limit for the cuts they can handle, and additional decreases in funding would require inevitable increases in tuition to counter the cuts.

“Essentially, what we have said is that our campuses have taken all that they can absorbing the current $500 million, so if we were to look at an additional $500 million we would have to look at replacing that largely … with tuition increases,” he said. “The numbers are very scary once you go beyond this.”

However, Yudof said in the event that an all-cuts budget is passed, the UC will have to struggle to fill the gap in a short period of time using a bridging strategy and a 32 percent midyear fee increase the board would have to approve.

“We’ve looked at the numbers until we were blue in the face,” he said regarding the potential fee increases should an all-cuts budget pass. “We’ve enrolled the students we’ve enrolled, we’ve hired the faculty we’ve hired, we have promises to keep … and we have pasted together a strategy for the fall that we will present to the board for consideration which will have a fee increase in January.”

Damian Ortellado and Aaida Samad cover higher education.