By Hank Gehman, guest commentary

The new round of tuition increases just approved by the UC regents again is focusing attention on our state government’s failure to adequately fund California’s higher education system.

It is also renewing calls for the University of California to reveal exactly how it plans to spend the new tuition increases or any new state monies that might be forthcoming.

Legislators are coming forward with different plans, but without accompanying budget transparency, UC can hardly expect the governor and the Legislature to continue to blindly increase state funding when no other state agency is exempt from financial oversight.

Most Californians would agree that our higher education system is vital for our economic and social health and that it is being foolishly underfunded. The California State University system is desperate for money, as its enrollment is surging without funding to match.

How UC would use new tuition and state funding is less clear. As always, UC officials are saying that these new fund will be used to expand the educational mission of the system. But the past misuse of UC tuition increases is a reminder that UC assurances must be verified.

After a long investigation of UC’s payroll, two reporters discovered that in the fiscal year of 2005-06, UC executives made unreported and unjustifiable payments to themselves totaling $871 million. Yes, $871 million!

Leading up to this was a wave of tuition increases, ostensibly to replace reductions in state funding. In those years, 2002-05, tuition was raised 79 percent for a total of $593 million. So, in effect, the entire four years of tuition increases forced on students didn’t go to support their education, but instead went to fund these improper payments that were kept from public view and even from the regents themselves.

But the regents failed to openly discipline anyone at the time, and the UC system continues to be unaccountable to the public.

There is a new law that requires UC to explain what it is doing with its funding. But so far, UC is acting like it is not responsible to the state of California and is refusing to comply. If the new tuition increases or new state funding will truly go to education as they say, then why is UC afraid to open its books?

Three years ago, UC Berkeley hired former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (who had just lost her TV job) and her husband to part-time positions at a salary of $300,000. When people objected, UC Berkeley trotted out its standard response, “If we don’t pay that amount Harvard will hire her away.” Really?

This arrogance is exactly what alienates Californians and undermines their commitment to their higher education system.

Several new funding plans have been proposed by state legislators to resolve the crisis. But none of them actually set out a path for the sustained increases in state funding that the CSU and UC systems need.

Senate Bill 15 has the laudable goal of expanding enrollment in the two systems, but the state funding portion of the plan decreases each year and seems to end in 2017. Speaker Toni Atkins would give only $50 million more to UC. The Republican proposal of freezing tuition is just punitive.

The Legislature needs to take greater steps than these to renew its commitment to California higher education. Abusive tuition increases are just a quiet path to privatization, and they must end. But along with state funding must come accountability to ensure that education and research are the university’s budget priorities, and not fancy buildings and outsize pay packages.

This pattern of crisis and confrontation has to end. Sen. Ricardo Lara’s proposal to have the Legislature take control of UC’s regents and financial decisions will backfire as it will cause a backlash in the academic community and give political ammunition to those regents pushing privatization.

To ensure accountability in the long run without interfering in the academic mission, UC governance itself has to be reformed. The current system with the governor appointing the regents has not worked. To institutionalize public accountability, a number of regents positions should be made statewide electoral offices.

Instead of billionaire businessmen, having elected regents will bring forward real educators with programs to increase access, husband university resources, and generally reconnect our UC system to its ultimate owners, the California taxpayer.

Hank Gehman is a former UC Berkeley graduate student and resident of Berkeley.

[Source]: Contra Costa Times