UCSA demands greater fiscal transparency of regents

Mandy Zheng/Staff

By now, every student of the UC system has likely heard of the UC Board of Regents’ tuition policy and the protests it sparked throughout the system in response. What many students may not know is how their campus and state student representatives were responding before our semester resumed last week. As one of UC Berkeley’s representatives on the UC Student Association, or UCSA, Board of Directors, I wanted to take this opportunity to update students on our activities.

At our January board meeting, I introduced a resolution expressing no confidence in the regents and UC President Janet Napolitano that was overwhelmingly passed by representatives from throughout the system. The resolution maintains a state of no confidence that will exist until 1) the plan adopted by the regents in November is repealed, 2) the provisions of AB 970 on consultation of students before any increase in mandatory tuition and fees are fully implemented and 3) students are included on the “committee of two,” reviewing the university’s budget.

Throughout this saga, the administration continues to claim it needs additional resources to fund its operations, turning to the policy adopted by the regents in November to seek an additional $98 million (on top of Gov. Jerry Brown’s original provision of only $119 million) from either the state or students, with the ball in the court of the former. Despite the fact that a law passed in 2013 requiring the university to open its books and report the actual cost of education, administration dragged its feet until the statutory deadline, then requested and secured an extension, and finally reported it was “difficult” to comply with the law. The university’s failure to conform to fiscal transparency standards that no other entity receiving public funds could ever hope to skirt has, unsurprisingly, inspired neither the governor nor the state Legislature to cooperate in appropriating additional funding.

Some notable and infamous financial scandals of the regents include the failure to contribute anything to the employee pensions fund in two decades, exorbitant and poorly timed administrative compensation increases as recently as the month before the tuition-increase plan’s adoption, the costly outsourcing of contracts to non-UC employees, excessive government safety fines for understaffing facilities, the establishment of venture capital funds and real-estate ventures tangential to the university’s mission, and projects with allegations of conflict of interest to individual regents — all massive headaches for a Legislature simultaneously at the mercy of enraged taxpayers and the regents’ constitutional autonomy that severely limits the Legislature’s ability to do anything that would assuage the public’s concerns.

Prior to Napolitano’s announcement unveiling her “long-term stability plan” (which occurred only 14 hours after blindsiding UCSA leadership with the news), our conversations with Sacramento were exponentially more optimistic. The announcement, however, immediately positioned the university as the rebellious and petulant public program cutting through Sacramento’s budget-restoration priorities. The clash of the titans — the battle between the egos of Brown and Napolitano — took center stage, and the conversation shifted from the squeezing of the middle class to watching who would blink first: Oakland or Sacramento.

Whether the university is indeed using its resources appropriately — we have our doubts — remains to be seen, especially as the efficiency of the allocation of existing resources cannot be verified. The constitutional autonomy of the UC system was intended to shield the public trust from political influence on academic freedom and curricular requirements, not to sidestep expectations of public accountability and good stewardship. To be fair, the state must make a sizably larger allocation to the university, as public higher education has always proven to be an investment, not a sunk cost — but we undoubtedly have our own work cut out for us in inspiring the public and its elected representatives to entrust the university with the taxpayers’ dollars.

If the UC system fails to willingly comply with fiscal transparency regulations, it may soon find its aegis of constitutional immunity gone, should State Senator Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, get his — and a number of interested student organizations’ — way with his recently introduced legislation aimed at ending the UC system’s long-standing legal autonomy from the state. While we wait to see how that legislation pans out, we remain at the mercy of complex power brokerings between a parsimonious governor, a Legislature unwilling to override a veto and an immensely unpopular university administration.

As the contributors of over a 10th of the UC system budget’s revenue, students have a huge stake in the success, as well as much to lose in the failures, of a university that no one doubts serves an incalculable amount of good for the state, the nation and, indeed, the world. The Legislature may have only just convened for its session, but we will be present in the state Capitol during every step of the budgetary process, fighting to ensure that students are not scapegoated for the failures of those who benefited (as they do enjoy reminding us) from an institution that may be renowned for its quality but should reexamine its credentials in accessibility and affordability.

The administration of the UC system should get back to the business of educating students, as far too much of its focus has been on matters wholly unrelated to the mission of the university as defined by the California Master Plan for Higher Education. For this reason, we have no confidence in the administration’s ability to effectively govern the world’s best system of public higher education, but we have provided a pretty clear roadmap of how they can get there.

Kevin Sabo is a UC Berkeley student and the board chair of UCSA.

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