With its 10 campuses, nearly 200,000 staff, and $20 billion annual budget, the University of California system is emblematic of the state government that pays a portion of its bills – enormous, unruly, overly expensive, steeped in politics, dominated by unions and other special-interest groups, and plagued with controversy.
California voters in 2010 turned the reins of the California government over to Jerry Brown, who has – despite his whimsical rhetoric – governed as the ultimate status-quo politician who has protected the state bureaucracy from reform.
Likewise, the UC regents have decided to choose a status-quo candidate as its newest president, as Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano gets the nomination. UC Regent Sherry Lansing said in a statement that some might find Napolitano to be an “unconventional choice,” but that’s nonsense. Napolitano is as conventional of a choice as one might have to run a large bureaucracy even if she has no serious academic experience.
Based on her tenure in the federal government, she will be an advocate for higher spending, for expanded unionization, and for more of everything that has turned the current university system into such a bureaucratic, scandal-plagued mess.
Just when the system needed a reformer who might implement competitive reforms and focus on cost-cutting, the system turns to a Washington insider more apt to keep federal funds flowing and student aid primed than to stretch the large budget already there.
The University of California has been embroiled in so many grotesque scandals in recent years. In one pay scandal, administrators enriched themselves and even their friends and lovers even as they were hiking tuition rates for students.
According to a 2010 article in the Bay Citizen, when outgoing President Mark Yudof took the helm amid a financial crisis, he “moved with his wife into a 10,000-square-foot, four-story house with 16 rooms, 8 bathrooms and panoramic views.” It cost UC more than $13,000 a month. While Yudof is credited for reducing the system’s massive pension problems, he was widely criticized for significantly increasing the living standards of UC leaders and for imposing large tuition hikes on students while he spent his time lobbying at the Capitol for more money.
One of the threads of the UC scandals is the sense of privilege and elitism expressed by those who run it combined with their desire to access more taxpayer cash and evade accountability. The Yudof situation came after a 2007 scandal, in which “UC President Robert Dynes and the governing Board of Regents have handed out more than $1 million in extra pay and perks to about 70 top executives,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The university system has even struggled with ethical problems involving doctors accused of performing unauthorized brain research on dying patients and UC fertility doctors who used stolen eggs and embryos. Nightmarish things happen at big institutions, but the University of California system seems to endure more of these things than other large universities.
Instead of seeking a forward-looking, market-oriented reformer, UC officials pretend that nothing is amiss and pick an old-school voice. The Sacramento Bee noted that Napolitano’s selection “marks shift from academia to politics.” That’s almost right. UC has always been deeply involved in politics, but now it dispenses with the veneer of academic priorities.
As Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Hesperia put it, “After failing to secure the border, ignoring the Fast and Furious scandal that killed one of the agents serving under her command, and leading the invasive and ineffective Transportation Security Administration, it’s honestly hard to imagine what Janet Napolitano thinks she can do for California’s UC system.”
He’s missing the point. Napolitano will do nothing for UC, which is why she was chosen. She will handle UC’s problems in the same way she handled the scandals that came under her department in the federal government. She will dodge, weave, stonewall and attack critics and yammer for more money.
That’s why the UC establishment is so thrilled to have her. And it’s why Napolitano and the UC leadership – not to mention the state’s Democratic leaders – have not said anything of substance about the university’s problems as they announced this selection. According to all the speeches, this is about Napolitano being an incredible leader whose love of education will help her lead an even more incredible institution.
It’s also Orwellian to have someone with Big Sis’s authoritarian background running an educational institution that is supposed to value open debate and free speech.U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, touched on Napolitano’s “poor record on civil liberties and government transparency” and expressed fears about her “authoritarian management style.”
His points about civil liberties are well taken given the UC system’s own problems on that front after a UC-Davis police officer nonchalantly pepper-sprayed park-squatting students and Occupy protesters in 2011. The officer no longer works for the university, but UC was less than forceful in the way it handled this matter.
If the system were looking for someone to maintain the status quo, it would have been better to at least have selected an accomplished educator. Napolitano is the worst of all worlds, which is bad news for taxpayers, students and the state of California.
Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.