Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ending a Bad UC Week: What Points Might Help Turn Things Around?

This was one of the worst weeks in recent UC,CSU, and CCC history, as the new Democratic governor dished out triple $500 million cuts to all the segments ($400 m to the community colleges), neck-and-neck for the cutting record of his Republican predecessor.  Comments on this blog and elsewhere suggest that some people think this is a clever political ploy, but many people are on the verge of giving up on the idea that California higher ed will ever recover under our political system. 

In the midst of this, there was something oddly cheerful about UC President Mark Yudof's conversation with Patt Morrison in the Los Angeles Times. He may have felt obligated to exude a leader-like calm. Under the circumstances, it would be better to exude a leader-like determination to go full tilt at the emergency.

In content  it was one of Yudof's  best press outlings since he arrived at UC.

The Good:
  • Full cost accounting for Brown's proposed state cuts: "Remember, it's not $500 million, it's really closer to a billion, because unlike community colleges and state colleges, the state doesn't give us money for employer contributions to the pension plan, so that raises the real cost [of the cuts] to $700 million; then you have union contracts, energy contracts, inflationary increases -- we really have a billion-dollar problem."
  • The racial dimension of underfunding. This issue rarely gets broached in print, but it has to be. Here, Yudof says,"The truth is, the deterioration of [education] funding predates this horrendous Great Recession. It's not like things went really great between 1990 and 2007, and then all of a sudden we had this problem. Some of it's driven by demographics -- an aging population of voters [worried about] Social Security and police protection. We have a huge demographic of Hispanic youngsters. It's no time to trim back and say, well, they're not our children; well, they are our children, maybe not biologically, but they're our children."  Scratch the biological othering and you have an important statement of a major origin of our self-dissolution. 
  • Great salaries are not the UC norm: " [In] the nation's 62 top universities, our highest [paid] chancellor ranks 50th. And the chair of the group, from Santa Barbara, ranks dead last."  Incidentally, Henry Yang, UCSB's chancellor, is also the longest-serving chancellor in the system.
  • Centrality of Higher Ed to the Future. "Who's going to train the nurses, the veterinarians? Who's going to invent the better solar panels? Who's going to make sure the crops are safe? Business is not doing this.  If we eat our seed corn, to use a Texas analogy, there's not going to be anything to support these programs. You have to create the basis for long-term prosperity."
The not-so-good
  • Leading with the Pension Problem. "We have a $20-billion shortfall, long run, in the pension plan. I think it's going to take 20 years to dig our way out, but we have a plan."  No one wants to hear about UC's $20 billion pension hole -- out of context.  In addition to the New Year's Gang of 36 fiasco that sustained UC's reputation as rich enough to sponsor both high executive salaries and continuous internal maneuvering for bigger perks, the Right has turned cutting public pensions into a national crusade. The Economist declared war in a recent cover story, "The Battle Ahead,"  The Weekly Standard is pushing the idea that states should be able to declare bankruptcy so they can default on their obligations to public employees.  There are dozens of these examples, many with the intent of distracting from real economic problems like the transforming of private into public debt and the country's lack of viable innovation and employment policies.  Better either to engage and explain decent pensions as, among other socially-important things, compensation for UC's sub-market salaries, or say nothing at all.
  • Same Old Wrong Claim that the Humanities and Social Sciences Lose Money. "We roughly have a $20-billion budget; $3 billion comes from the state. That's the English department, the Spanish department, economics -- that have difficulty generating the big outside grants. I love the humanities; I'm a creature of the humanities. But the engineering colleges are going to bring in more external research support, and that money's crucial."  Mais non, c'est faux!  In fact, the big outside grants lose money, and are supported in part by cross-subsidies from high-enrollment fields in and out of the science and engineering fields that bring in big, important, and yet very costly grants.  UC has officially acknowledged this. For example, the third sentence of a Regents's item in November 2010 reads, "The UC system incurs $600 million in unreimbursed indirect costs every year."  A San Francisco Chronicle report on the original UCOF discussion of this issue put the figure at $720 million on $3.5 billion in research revenues, or a loss of about 20 cents on the research dollar. The Academic Senate's indirect cost recovery report calcuates that ICR is about 25% while true indirect costs "appear to be in the 65-70% range" (p 5).  Mark Yudof's repeated misstatement on this has at least two bad outcomes: (1) it undoes emerging public awareness of why education is so expensive; (2) it undoes emerging awareness among scientists that they are not huge profit centers for the university.  Science research should have more funding, not less (as should the social sciences, arts, and humanities, which are pitiful also-rans). But research should be fully funded and thus not damage the finances of struggling public universities. If Mark Yudof can't be clear about this, how can we find any of the $500 million in internal savings we will need six months from now?
  • Lionizing Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Education Governor. "[Former Gov.] Schwarzenegger had a huge regard for higher education. He understood its role in economic development. Great research universities take a long time to build and can be destroyed in a very short period of time; he understood that."  In reality, no modern California governor whacked higher ed like Arnold did, early and often.  He forced a Compact on UC and CSU that held down budget growth in good years, obligated annual tuition increases at 2-4 times the rate of inflation, and mandated infinite private fundraising to try (in vain) to fill operational holes.  He then welched on the Compact in a heartbeat in 2008 and cut UC 20%. He also crusaded tirelessly against public services in general, and tried to eliminate the UC pension along with those of all other state workers in 2005.  If the president of UC thinks this guy was a great higher education governor, then the UC president likes cuts and increasing dependence on private funds.  Mark Yudof clearly says he likes neither, so this kind of politicking should stop. 
  • Letting Jerry Brown off the hook.  Why not instead say, "I know a lot about budget deficits. But budget deficits are no excuse for unraveling a great public university system."  
  • Mixed Signals on Tuition Increases. "We've hit the students very hard, roughly 40% [of increases] in the last three years, I think. What we've given back? If you have a family income of $80,000 a year and you're financial-aid eligible, you don't pay tuition. I thought that was pretty good. And we didn't apply the increase to students [with family incomes] between $80,000 and $120,000."  So we didn't hit the students hard?  Full cost of attendance is making UC less affordable for low-income students, who in spite of Blue-and-Gold assurances borrow more both in percentage and absolute terms than do students of the middle-class.  UC needs to be much clearer that in spite of all the University tries to do, and its genuine good intentions, it cannot sustain student access with incessant, gigantic state funding cuts.
The omitted:
  • Credible internal budgeting and operating reforms that will lead to real savings. I don't mean this $500 million in "administrative savings" floated last year by CFO Peter Taylor, (and I certainly hope that the Brown administration didn't get its $500 miillion cuts figure from that claim).  I mean concrete measures to respond to many stakeholders' legitimate concerns about UC's opaque budgeting and fund distribution, not to mention concerns about unfair distributions of resources and operational blockages of the kinds frontline faculty and staff know all about.  Given Brown's statement that he will work wilth all "stakeholders," Mark Yudof should sponsor real cross-functional collaborations, and assure the public that all parts of the UC community, including the dreaded unions that represent close to half of all employees, will be full participants.
  • A timeline for public funding recovery.  Would it be possible for our president to say, "our plan, after making proportionately enormous sacrifices to the state deficit for the umptheeth time, is to rebuild funding to the $3 billion level by 2013-2014, and $4 billion by two years after that. Otherwise, I truly hate to say, we will be looking at $20,000 tuition for undergraduates.  Nobody wants that, but we have a duty to our students to protect quality, so we will do that if the state forces us to."
  • Presentation of UC, CSU, and the CCC as a counter-cyclical economic stimulus.   This is a no-brainer.  Jerry Brown is taking up the Arnold Herbert Hoover non-stimulation of the California economy that the last governor got such a good start on. All higher ed leaders should do this every chance they get.  People give a vote of half-confidence to austerity because the folks in charge offer no alternative.
  • A statement about the educational emergency. The deep crisis is not the budget crisis, it's the education crisis.  It's also the public services crisis --the meltdown in the high quality infrastructure and services that enable the creative, satisfied, productive population of today and tomorrow, with higher education being Exhibit A. California educational attainment has crashed, and both social and economic decline are already following. This has to stop. If we wait until the economy recovers, the economy isn't going to recover.
Somebody recently pointed out that institutions and societies don't fail because they never get second chances. They fail because they blow their second chances, and their third and fourth and fifth and sixth chances too.  Brown's budget is another chance to make our case, and Mark Yudof's interview suggests UCOP is somewhat more ready not to miss it.

They will need every last one of us to help them.

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