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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fight or Flight?

It’s bad enough to live through budget crises that go on for years at a time while paralyzing planning and development of every kind. We also have to deal with leadership problems, centering now on the fact that neither the Regents nor UCOP nor the campus chancellors have credible plans for reversing or coping with the relentless grinding away of the university’s public funding base. The failure of Jerry Brown’s doomed, misguided effort to exchange massive new cuts for a public vote on tax extensions means that UC and the state's other higher education segments will need to fight like dogs to avert a major budgetary meltdown.  Brown is unfornately on track to undo in a couple of years what his father’s generation—among others--took decades to build.

But will UC fight? Its leaders won’t, if my conversation with a vocal senior UC offical reflects the wider thinking.

 This official contacted me because he objected to a core claim in my recent posts about the Regents (here and here). I very much appreciated the outreach and dialgoue, and am not doing justice to the full range of our friendly conversation, but am focusing on the overriding theme.

He asked at the start, "what makes you think that there's money in Sacramento, and even if there were, that they would give any if it to UC"? He then ran through a detailed analysis of California’s liabilities, all very authoritatively done and no doubt correct. He emphasized how much higher the liabilities are when you use accrual accounting rather than cash accounting. He than asked me how I could suggest that UC could ever go back to the state.

I offered him three reasons.

First, that a much poorer California first built a great UC, and we can do this again in the face of our liabilities. I mentioned my depression era grandparents paying for a system whose expansion allowed my mother and father to be first-generation college students, and also cited stats about declining tax effort in relation to personal income, a declining share of the state budget as a percentage of aggregate income, lower business taxes as a share of the total (slide 7), etc. A relatively poor California built this great thing, and we can certainly do at least as well as they do. I called funding cuts a 20-year policy choice that now needs to be undone. He thought this was too simple, and asked if I had experience in Sacramento. I told him about a faculty group visit too various legislators in 2008. We agreed on the actual attitudes in Sacramento, but not on whether the attitudes could be changed.

Second, I made the point that UCOP and the Regents have been deflating state support by saying yes it's terrible that we are being cut but we can replace public with private funds. The legislature doesn't just "hate UC," as he put it, but thinks that it can cut UC without causing much damage. They think the kids from Simi Valley will pay $14k instead of $10.5 k, no big deal, UC will still be the greatest public university in the world as UCOP always says and we need the money for other stuff like healthcare. My conversation partner scoffed at this explanation, saying "you sound like that guy who came up to me at the Regents meeting and said if you just stopped talking in public about how we have other sources the legislature would stop cutting us." I said that guy was right.

I made the general point that you can't insert the word "just" into a sentence and get an accurate paraphrase of the faculty's position on this. We all know it's complicated and that we're undoing years of mixed messages, a process that will itself take years. But the first thing to do is to stop sending the mixed messages (we will cut but won't hurt the instructional program as Nathan Bostrom recently told a newspaper). The next thing to do is to just tell the truth: the cuts are radically downgrading the University. People really don't know the damage that these cuts do to the university. He thought they did . . . I said this brings us to my third argument, which is that the Regents don't have any choice but to change direction. They don't want to cut quality, of course, so they have to restore public funding. The alternative, if they don't, is tuition going to $40,000 in a few years. So either we say great, let's go there, or we go back to the state and say not restoring money is not an option. (UC President Mark Yudof has started gesturing in this direction.)

I honestly don't know whether he took this in or not. He talked about his son paying less for his semester at a UC campus than for his time at his regular Ivy League campus, and was it right that he, who could pay more, would be subsidized by the taxpayers? I said yes it is right, because it is the basis of a UC that serves the state as a whole, and it produces a UC with more class and race diversity than all of the Ivy League colleges put together or any other private, or any other semi-private public like Michigan, measured in Pell Grants among other things. I mentioned the principal of mutualization, which most Americans seem to have forgotten although Hollywood used to make widely popular movies on the subject. If you want to get people to actually use a service, you lower the price by sharing the cost across the widest percentage of the population, and this understanding-- service to the whole state-- needs to be rebuilt.

The most interesting part was near the end. I said it's Sacramento or 40,000 dollars, that has to be the Regents consistent message. He said that was just a rhetorical point. I said it's a quantitative point, and if my arithmetic is wrong somebody needs to fix it. It would also help the public to understand their real choice: they think the choice is between higher taxes or a great UC at $14,000 instead of $10,500, but they're wrong. Since they don't understand the real choice, how can we expect them to make a real decision? Since we've never said "hike your taxes or get UC B+ at $40,000," why should they have ever vote a hike? I asked him, Will you use the $40k number? No I won't he replied, it won't work. Why not at least try it, I asked? This isn't just hypothetical - a unit like Berkeley Law that made top quality defined by rankings as its only priority fought tirelessly to get its tuition to $40,000. This official like Regent Blum is pro high-tuition, but when I said "high tuition" = $40,000 he didn't want to go there. Food for thought is this: I don't think he doesn’t want to go there because he thinks the number is wrong. My hunch is that he doesn’t want to risk creating public opposition to continuous but not-too-shocking annual tuition increases, ones that will create UC B+ that we will call UC A- (except at Berkeley and UCLA), for a modest in-state price of $20,000. He invited me to start visiting Sacramento, and I said with pleasure. I added, I think you and I should go there together and do a joint presentation where we talk about tuition at $40,000. He certainly didn't go for this, and he wound the conversation down at this point.

My own views on this are simple.

First, the voters deserve to have numbers attached to the fatal choices they are in the process of making.

Second, the Senate should push for an extension of the Regents’ budget presentation that formalizes the real numbers on projected tuition increases that the student Regent had to coax apologetically out of Nathan Bostrom.

Third, faculty should demand and receive access to divisional-level campus budgets and planning scenarios so they can offer informed comment and make intelligent decisions about their own careers.

Finally, the financial brains on the Board of Regents, with their experience in creating and investing in large liabilities, should help the state solve its liability issues in a way that doesn't wreck its higher education system.

Faculty, staff, and students are going to need to mobilize themselves on budget policy like they never have before. I really don’t see any other way of avoiding acceleratign decline.

14 comments:

Gerry Barnett said...

Well put. The Regents and senior administrators would do well to stop dwelling on the thought that cuts won't hurt quality, and that higher tuition won't hurt service to the public. It is ineffectual, damaging rhetoric.

"It's only a flesh wound."

It would be refreshing, even, for some of them to embrace openly $40K/yr, if that's the thing, and explain how that will work for the people of the state as well as the university, rather than using this figure of thought to preclude such a discussion.

"So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."

dr_k said...

chris, the commission from the future funding strategies work group saw all sorts of OP calculations on how much tuition would need to rise, with all blue-sky regental priorities included - and the numbers climb above 40k for NRT by 2016, above 20k for in-state.

the reason a public presentation won't go there should be obvious. UCOP is wary not of politicians but of journalists, although neither group understands UC well enough.

next time you have fireside chats with people like this one, ask them about COTF docs titled "calculator fee projections" dated feb 2 and feb 11, 2010.

dr_k said...

well, sorry - I'm the april fool here: I left out the word "just" in the penultimate sentence. I meant UCOP is wary not JUST of politicians...

Gerry Barnett said...

Is it time for a set of informed faculty and staff with good numbers and good documentation to sit down with a set of journalists for a briefing on the matter? The journalists won't understand anything any better listening to senior administrators. Not a pressure session, but to lay out the problems, pressure points, and things to watch, places to use the dreaded open records laws.

Ex-UCB staffer said...

I'm all for UC getting what it should from the state. However I wonder how that is going to come to pass when the public perception is that top administrators at UC are more interested in replicating themselves and feathering their nests with $$ and perks than in the core mission of the University of California. UC has shot itself in the foot by laying off hundreds of lower-level staff-- people who actually serve the students-- and largely leaving the upper administration not only intact but growing in number. I worked at UCB for nearly ten years and I saw up close how staff at a certain level get paid a heck of a lot for very little in return. They get to start these pet projects (and hire staff for these projects) that go nowhere, or worse, duplicate work already being done in other areas. When the money or interest starts to wane, they just create a new "project" and move on to that. Oh, the Powerpoints I have seen!...
I sincerely fear that if by some miracle the state actually gave UC everything it needed/wanted, the funds would not go where they were needed and tuition would continue to climb. There is a deep distrust (perhaps a bit overblown, but definitely not unwarranted) of the UC power structure. Unless and until that power structure is seriously reformed, I don't see how the CA taxpayer is going to get behind the full funding of our (once) great university system.

Gerry Barnett said...

fwiw, I put together a concept piece on the idea that a university could roll back administrative salaries starting at the top and reducing proportionately to a "pivot" point salary, below which there would be no salary reductions.

https://sites.google.com/site/publicpivot/

There you can download an Excel spreadsheet with 2009 salaries for the University of Washington with a set of control parameters that show how the pivot might work.

I know--no-one in a senior public service position is going to give up the gains they have, even to save the jobs of those at lower pay positions, and even to save core programs and services.

Catherine Liu said...

I am willing to go to Sacramento with a group of UC employees to make our case, but we need some kind of organizational entity that will make faculty and staff understand the stakes of lobbying and advocating for public higher ed funding. I also take very seriously ex-UCB staffer's concerns about boondoggle culture during flush times. To advocate for more public support also entails engaging in managerial vigilance that most faculty are reluctant to assume, at least on an institutional scale. I think that there is a certain expansion of our job descriptions that seems unexamined here. I do believe we can assume these new tasks, but we need some kind of structure. The faculty senate is supposed to create accountability systems that faculty oversee, but we know that these are flawed institutions. In a sense, ex-UCB staffer is asking for fundamental structural change. Universities are notoriously difficult places to reform. I think we can frame the project as a positive one -- to create a better more ethical university than the privates with which we compete, but these ideas need more development.

dr_k said...

Sorry, Ex-UCB Staffer, the numbers do not support the charge that the senior management is UC's big budget problem - they are few in number, and actually do not earn any more than their peers at comparable institutions. Maybe Berkeley has been sheltered in multiple ways from what is buffeting the other campuses, but that will soon end, too, since the growth campuses can no longer support unequal allocations of any revenue source.

As for UC's political problem, it is the nation's higher ed problem, and that is too much for mere blog comment ;-) Nonetheless, I certainly agree with Gerry and Catherine - faculty and students and staff, with good information, have been going to advocacy days in Sacramento and Oakland and Los Angeles, and must keep doing so.

Bronwen Rowlands said...

I'm with you, "Ex UCB-staffer."
Here's my take: t's all going to come down very fast now, and the power that we all have--the only power left to us to combat the big-money interests that are destroying UC-- is resistance.

No act of resistance is wasted.

Bronwen Rowlands said...

Behold "Operational Excellence": At UCB, eight "shared service centers" are being formed. Last Friday, April 1, this memo went to IST staff. http://tinyurl.com/3fd3xgg
Bland, orwellian and vague ("production control center"?) the memo announces that "existing units" will be closed and "qualified applicants from the existing units are encouraged to apply."

cloudminder said...

"Dr.K" at 8:29pm
re: your reinterpretation of "Ex-UCB Staffer" comment:

1- "Ex-UCB Staffer" never said 'the charge that the senior management is UC's big budget problem'-- it looks like that is your quote/assertion alone.

2-"Ex-UCB Staffer" referred to pet projects these SMG folks launch then fail miserably at implementing or oversell-- those projects add up to a whole lotta millions each year. Other faculty have openly complained about it - e.g. Save/BFA Appeal to Suspend AP Bears among many other issues just in the last six months. Yet, the leadership who launch this c&%p have had their supervisory load reduced (far fewer or no staff report to them now while at the same time they are paid the same or even higher wages. or they have stipends paid to them for the extra time they spent working on the now failed project. yes, this is unfortunately true). The wages are not the prime/only issue -- the cost of the failed projects, implementation and fixes are the prime issue and extremely costly to the UC system.

UCOP frequently says salaries of the SMG etc. only amount to 2% of each FY budget etc -or something like that-- but the failed bells and whistles projects these senior mngmt folks encourage UC to purchase and launch are very, very costly indeed! and these senior administrators are never held to account for the failed boondoggles. We laughed when Ex UCB staffer said "oh the power points I have seen"-- b/c we knew exactly the BS being referred to - and I bet you, Dr K, do too. Perhaps rather than just promoting generic advocacy days- think about it - rather than being immediately dismissive or altering Ex UCB staffer's original and accurate commentson the cost of pet projects.

Bronwen Rowlands said...

UC Berkeley destroys the departmental integrity of Gender & Women's Studies, African American Studies, and Ethnic Studies; "restructures" staff. http://tinyurl.com/3wk4vua

AndrewD said...

It would seem your high figure is more widely acknowledged. Governor Brown is reported as saying (http://tinyurl.com/4xv6v2o) that a further larger cut to the University (in an all cuts budget) will cause tuition & fees to rise to $20,000 - $25,000 (without removing all state support by any means). Of course one has to wonder where that actual number came from: the University, or back-of-the-envelope arithmetic?

mia1990lane said...

Hi Chris,
Great write-up! This post was very interesting to read although i'm not familiar much with the topic.

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