By Kathryn Lybarger

The growing controversy over the UC’s new logo follows recent comments from Gov. Jerry Brown that called for more “modesty” from the University of California.

Webster’s dictionary defines modesty as “that lowly temper that accompanies a moderate estimation of one’s own worth and importance.”

I doubt the governor was talking about UC students. They’ve already endured a tripling of tuition and cuts to Cal Grants, with another tuition hike being proposed for next year.

He wasn’t talking about campus staff either – as recently as 2008, 96 percent of UC service workers were eligible for public assistance. And that was before all UC workers were forced to take $184 million in pay cuts during the 2009 budget crisis.

Nor does this statement seem to apply to the 300,000 served annually at UC’s five medical centers. An independent hospital rating agency just gave the largest of those hospitals – Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center – an “F” on patient safety. Overly modest staffing levels probably aren’t helping.

As for faculty, new hires have been cut by two-thirds since 2008, wage freezes have been put in place, and academic programs cut.

So what’s all this talk about modesty?

It’s about priorities. In addition to the controversial new logo that was quietly made public last week, the UC regents also just approved a $50,000 salary bump for the job of UC Berkeley chancellor. Gov. Brown undoubtedly knows full well that the millions of Californians who just voted for Prop. 30 would much rather see those resources spent on better patient care at Reagan Medical Center or helping a few more Californians go to college.

The pushback over these spending priorities aren’t isolated incidents but part of a growing pattern of UC financial decision-making that might best be described as “trickle-down academics.”

Consider that while students and UC staff were absorbing the worst of the UC’s recurring budget problems between 2008 and 2011, the number of top administrators making over $200,000 a year grew by 44 percent. In other words, while students, patients and most campus staff were becoming walking symbols of austerity, a group of 1,500 or so UC elites were rewarded with $167 million in salary increases.

Then there are the five UC medical centers. Many of the facilities have been constructed on the backs of new debt collateralized by tuition increases and deep cuts to core academic programs. They generate hundreds of millions of dollars in profits each year. While many of the profits have been spent on executive pay raises and more capital projects, none have been used to roll back tuition hikes or to restore quality and affordability to the UC system as a whole.

No one is against competitive wages for doctors or supporting quality medical institutions. What we’re against is the insistence of more sacrifice and hardship for those who can least afford it, to the near-exclusive benefit of those who can.

Modesty calls for real accountability and leadership by example – not the blind hope that concentrating or compartmentalizing scarce resources among a favored few will somehow trickle down to everyone else.

It also demands more humility. Here again, the UC regents have not exactly been role models.

Last month, doctoral researchers at Berkeley exposed how risky Wall Street investments known as “interest rate swaps” have already cost the UC system more than $57 million. The report called on regents to do what many other public institutions have already done – stem the losses by renegotiating the swaps or pursue legal action against the banks who illegally gamed the system. Instead, with potentially $200 million at stake, UC’s chief financial officer – a former executive at a Wall Street firm that sold the swaps before going bankrupt – dismissed the suggestion and attacked the researchers.

At the November regents meeting, a coalition of UC labor groups requested the opportunity to present a pension actuarial analysis that provides a road map for saving $1 billion over the next four years. The regents denied the request and approved a proposed budget for next year that includes a 6 percent tuition increase instead.

Here’s the bottom line: Modesty alone won’t magically roll back tuition hikes, pull UC workers out of poverty, improve patient care or restore the financial stability that every UC stakeholder deserves. But it will demonstrate whether UC regents and administrators are willing to even try. Right now, it doesn’t look like they are. And it’s clear that the leaders who will determine the fate of the UC’s future state budget requests are watching.

Lybarger is president of AFSCME Local 3299, which represents 22,000 service and patient care workers at the University of California’s 10 campuses and five medical centers.

[Source: UT-San Diego]