State officials must prioritize higher education

UNIVERSITY ISSUES: Gov. Jerry Brown should accommodate university officials' request for an additional $120 million in state funding.

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The UC Board of Regents and UC President Janet Napolitano engaged in a tug-of-war with state officials over this year’s university budget at the regents’ meeting last week. After the dust cleared, the two sides were no closer to reconciling their positions than they’ve been in the past few years: Gov. Jerry Brown insisted UC officials cut administrative costs while Napolitano argued for $120 million more in state funding than the $140 million increase that Brown offered.

While high administrative costs in the UC system are worrying, Brown and the state government made it clear that they have misguided priorities by denying the UC nearly half of the 10 percent funding increase Napolitano sought. California institutions of higher education, and the UC system in particular, are essential engines of innovation and economic growth in California, and while the return on investment that comes from an educated public may be tough to measure, the state is dependent upon these institutions for its continued prosperity.

As it has been weaned away from state support, the university has been forced to turn to less desirable sources of funding like enrolling higher numbers of out-of-state and international students and increasing tuition. This has eroded the system’s accessibility for Californians, its capacity to promote social mobility and income equality, and thus its public mission. And Brown’s method of addressing the problem of administrative costs — by attempting to starve the problem out — doesn’t address underlying structural causes, and could inflict vast collateral damage to the state’s flagship university.

This budget squabble is also a metric with which to judge the financial implications of Napolitano’s impressive political resume. When she was nominated for UC president, proponents argued that her political resume — of which many people were skeptical — could mean the ability to bargain more successfully for the state’s financial support than the academics in her position were able to. This budget debate is a golden opportunity for Napolitano to prove her worth.

Regardless, the UC must adjust to a reality in which increases in state funding are consistently below what administrators say they need. As part of his 2013-2014 budget, Brown proposed giving identical budget base increases to both the UC and California State University systems equivalent to about 5 percent of the UC budget. A report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office suggests similar increases may continue until 2017. UC officials must preempt those less-than-ideal increases with substantial efforts to cut down administrative spending, to show state officials that they are doing all they can to shift their proportion of spending toward academics.

The budget debate is both an indicator of the share of the economic recovery the UC system can expect and Napolitano’s bargaining power as a well-connected politician. And the stakes are high: the country’s premier institution of higher education hangs in the balance.