27 October 2009

Student coalition calls for system-wide strike

A student coalition is calling for a system-wide strike to be held Nov.18-20, concomitantly with the Regents' meeting where the proposed fee increases for next year will be considered.

The students demand:
  • that the Regents vote no on the proposed fee increases.
  • that the UC stop cuts and layoffs, and end its aggressive union-busting tactics.
  • transparency of the UC budget, including complete figures on how much of the additional revenue from fees will be diverted for construction and used as bond collateral.
  • that the Regents expand enrollment of underrepresented groups and ensure equal access to education for all.
  • an explanation for the failure of the UC leadership to make an effective case for public higher education.
These seem all pretty much on track to me.

26 October 2009

Bring democracy to the UC

The University of California is governed by the UC Regents, a body established in 1878 when Article IX, Section 9 of the California consititution was drafted to ensure that
the university shall be entirely independent of all political and sectarian influence and kept free therefrom in the appointment of its Regents and in the administration of its affairs.
Commendable as these goals sound, the appointment of 18 Regents by the Governor to 12-year terms seems to have achieved exactly the opposite result than intended by those who enacted the state Constitution. The Regents have essentially unchecked authority on the University, free to pursue whatever vision might move them. All is well, of course, as long as that vision is informed by the common good of the citizens of California, but it can go dangerously astray when it's not.

The flip side of political autonomy is lack of accountability.

That is why there is now a "student and alumni-led" democratization effort, The Phoenix Project, aiming "to build a state-wide coalition that can model democracy by bringing together University of California stakeholders." 

The appointment of essentially autonomous Regents to what are close to life terms is not the only way to ensure that the University  is "independent of all political and sectarian influence."

The  Phoenix Project has put forward another option, which would have looked outlandish in 1878, but not in 2009, intended to develop a model of governance that brings all the different constituencies at the UC (students, alumni, faculty, local communities) into the deliberative process. This is of course still quite vague, but people are beginning to explore the details of such a plan.

20 October 2009

Another blogging hiatus

Blogging will be light-to-nonexistent as I travel to a conference. But there is still plenty to read, whether on this blog or by following the links at left.

18 October 2009

Save Democracy, Fix California

George Lakoff has launched his campaign to put a constitutional amendment called the "California Democracy Act" on the ballot in 2010. The proposed amendment consists of one sentence:
All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by majority vote.
As it's becoming increasingly clear (as if it wasn't already) it's impossible to start addressing California's problems unless we fix the political process first.

People can join the campaign by signing up at http://www.camajorityrule.com/.

15 October 2009

Eight Questions for Mark Yudof

We've known for quite a while that the University enjoys a higher credit rating than the state, so much so that UC recently borrowed $200M on behalf of the State. Thanks to a cogent and detailed Open Letter authored by Bob Meister, now we know why: the University can do something that the State can't, i.e., raise revenue at will by increasing tutition (whereas the State cannot raise taxes, given the political and legal constraints).

Meister's letter should be required reading in every classroom in the system: it explains in details how UC has pledged student fees as collateral for its bonds, which in turn are used to finance capital construction projects around the campuses.

Careful reading of the letter elicits the following eight questions for UC President Yudof, questions to which we anxiously await answers.
  1. How much revenue does UC obtain through tuition-backed bonds?
  2. Will UCOP disclose its plans to issue new tuition-backed bonds in the future?
  3. How much money will UC be committing to service debt incurred through any future tuition-backed bonds?
  4. Where exactly does UC list in its financial statements the reserves being held by the bond trustee, Bank of New York Mellon Trust (BoNYMellon)?
  5. Will UCOP release the "due diligence" documents it furnished the bond trustee, BoNYMellon, and the bond-rating agencies, Moody's and Standard & Poor's when it first issued bonds in 2004?
  6. More in general, what are UC's plans to raise capital in the bond market, whether these bonds are backed by tuition or not?
  7. Has UC ever diverted funds off-the-top from instruction budgets to construction budgets, and if so, in what amounts?
  8. Last but not least, how much revenue does UC derive from its contracts with the Department of Energy and the private partners at the National Labs?
UPDATE: based on Meister's report, Charles Schwarz asks whether, beside being pledged as collateral for construction bonds, tuition is or will be used also to actually service debt. We are confident this question will receive as swift a response as the eight questions above.

12 October 2009

All hat and no cattle

If one needed any  proof that Gov. Schwarzenegger's emphasis on transparency and accountability is just for show, one would have to look no further than the Governor's veto of  S.B. 86, S.B 218 and S.B 219.

S.B 86 would have imposed limits on executive compensation at CSU and UC; S.B. 218 would amended the California Public Records Act to include organizations performing auxiliary functions for CSU and UC; and S.B. 219 would have extended whistleblower protection to UC employees. All three bills were introduced by Sen. Leland Yee, and approved by the Legislature. All three were opposed by senior management at UC and CSU.

We had already commented on Sen. Lee's laudable efforts. It does look like Sen. Lee and Lt. Governor Garamendi are the only ones left in California public life who have any sense at all.

Schwarzenegger defended his veto of executive compensation caps by claiming that
A blanket prohibition limiting the flexibility for the UC and CSU to compete, both nationally and internationally, in attracting and retaining high level personnel does a disservice to those students seeking the kind of quality education that our higher education segments offer.
But even if we agreed with the Governor's (and UCOP's) privatization strategy, this seems backwards: if it wanted to guarantee students the best education experience California has to offer, the University should be actively recruiting and appropriately compensating its faculty, not the administrators. Let me ask you: When's the last time you heard of universities and colleges being ranked by the quality of their administrators? I can imagine it already, US News and World Report advising students to attend such and such a school — they have lousy teachers and no facilities, but their administrators rock!

The other lesson we learn from this (besides the fact the Governator talks the talk but does not have the balls to walk the walk), is that UC's (and CSU's) lobbying efforts paid off handsomely, at least for senior management at UCOP and across the campuses. The lobbyists UC employs (at an annual cost of $1.6M in payroll only) obviously managed to get the Governor's ear, convincing him to overturn the decision of elected officials in the California legislature.

Calls to save access to higher ed in California

Looks like finally people are beginning to notice the dismal state of higher ed in California, and that the famed Master Plan for higher education, on which much of California's global success was built, is now not worth the paper it's printed on (or, in this case, the bandwidth needed to access it). As an example of this renewed awareness, see the unsigned editorial in the Pasadena Star-News:
There are signs everywhere that the state's pillars of higher education - access, affordability and quality — are crumbling.
Access, affordability and quality are precisely the three historical components of the Master Plan. The editorial calls for "a robust public discussion about the future of public higher education." Unfortunately, higher education does not seem to be high on the priority list in Sacramento, or on many people's minds for that matter (unless they have a direct involvement in higher ed the students, their families, the faculty and staff at California colleges and universities, and their families).

10 October 2009

California's budget hole widening

It was clear already this past July that the nasty and brutal budget deal reached by the Governor and the Legislature would not probably be enough. We now learn from Bloomberg that the State's revenues are already running $1.1B behind expectations in the 3 months June 30 to Sept. 30, the decline being driven by smaller-than-expected returns in sale taxes, which in turn are driven by the 12.2% unemployment rate and certainly not helped by furloughs and layoffs of state workers.

The Bloomberg article also makes clear how much of the current budgetary trouble derives from servicing debt uncurred by the State under Schwarzenegger in trying to balance previous budgets. In addition to old debt, the July budget deal allows the sale of an extra $11B in bonds, "if the market allows," i.e., if the state does not have to commit to extravagantly high rates to force its bonds down investors' throats.

All of this spells trouble for the prospect of higher ed in California. At UC, we have a "soft" promise from UCOP to end of furloughs in 2010-11, but we have already had calls for an extensions (to mitigate fee increases), and the current budgetary stars do not seem to be aligned the right way.

As a counterpoint, in a recent NYT piece, Paul Krugman points out the elementary fact that in an economic downturn public support of education serves the dual purpose of providing counter-cyclical employment opportunities and delaying entry in a dismal job market for high-school (and college) graduates. California is, of course, doing exactly the opposite of what it should be doing.

08 October 2009

The new hybrid model and the future of UC

As is well known, UC Pres. Mark Yudof has been a staunch proponent of a "hybrid" model for the University, i.e., a public-private partnership characterized by high(er) tuition, less public funding, and corporate sponsorship. Now, UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau and Vice Chancellor Yeary have come forward with an alternative hybrid model, this time characterized by a federal-state partnership. (The proposal can be found — appropriately — in the WaPo, but has been published elsewhere as well.)

Based on the (correct, but too often forgotten) principle that public universities deliver a public good, Birgeneau and Yeary advocate a new Morrill Act that would see unprecedented (for this country) direct participation of the federal government in higher education.

According to this proposed plan, the federal government would make a direct commitment to a few "great" public institutions such Michigan, Illinois, Rutgers, and of course Berkeley to
provide sufficient additional funding for operations and student support to ensure broad access and continued excellence.
In addition the federal government would enter a 10-year agreement to match 2-1 any private funds raised toward the endowment along with a 1-1 commitment on part of the state. So if, say, Berkeley were to raise $150M a year for 10 year it would end up with a $6B endowment.

These are the outlines. What to make of it?

Like Yudof's own public-private hybrid model, the Birgeneau-Yeary proposal moves from the assumption that state support is gone for good. This might well be true, but so far no serious arguments have been put forward for it, except exhortations to Realpolitik (which are just that, and no arguments at all). The assumption itself might not be as well entrenched anymore, now that the pain caused by fee increases has finally become visible, at a time where other powerful economies around the world are investing more and not less in higher ed.

If we grant the premise, then again I think UCB is correct to try every possible avenue available to them to save such a great University. California is better off with a hybridized UCB than with none at all. That much is clear. And the Birgeneau-Yeary model would certainly appear to be more stable than the Yudof model, which would rapidly accelerate towards complete privatization.

But notice how both hybridization models so far proposed will inevitably lead to the break-up of the UC system. This is much is clear in the UCB plan: Berkeley would get a federal bail-out, and the other campuses will be left to sink or swim, as the case might be. But the same would happen on the Yudof model: the ten campuses cannot conceivably privatize (or hybridize) at the same speed, and this again would lead to a top tier (UCB, UCLA, maybe UCSD) raising tuition and establishing private partnerships, while the rest would be gradually be absorbed by the CAL State system. There is certainly not enough demand in the State for college instruction at the private price point, and even any out-of-staters would naturally gravitate towards the flagships.

06 October 2009


Suppose a world-renowned, but cash-strapped university, while facing prospects of further cuts down the road, suddenly discovered a cool unencumbered $3M in the folds of its budget. Well, what is such a glorious university, overlooking one of the most beautiful bays in the world, supposed to do with it? Use it to retain its stellar faculty? Or perhaps recruit more deserving students from diverse backgrounds? Or even recognize the contributions of unsung service staff? The possibilities are endless, from improving the students' learning experience to better benefits for non-ladder faculty.

Naturally, none of the above. It's all about priorities. Three million is just what is need to hire a fancy out-of-state management consulting firm to get advice on ... more cuts!

Remarkably, this is the same consulting firm who advised in favor of the historic UCSF/Stanford merger. which had later had to be undone at a cost of $176M. Even more remarkably, such an unnamed university is host to a top-ranked business school, whose faculty would have been happy to advise on budget cuts for a fee well below $3M.

05 October 2009

UC's very own Darth Vader

As reported by the UCSB Daily Nexus, Pres. Yudof traveled to Irvine on Saturday to sit down with UCI Chancellor Drake for a group interview with various UC student newspapers. The interview itself rehearses the same main talking points as in Yudof's address to the Regents or his Chronicle piece. What is noteworthy is that a "swarm" of students and service workers had planned a protest in advance of Yudof's arrival in Irvine and that as a consequence Pres. Yudof had to be whisked to an "undisclosed location" (pretty much like the original Darth Vader) to meet the student reporters.

It says a lot about the sorry state of the University when the UC President dos not stop to chat with — in fact purposely avoids —  a few dozen students and service workers who are, after all, members of his own constituency.

04 October 2009

Blogging hiatus

Apologies for the light or non-existent posting the last few days — the beginning of classes finally caught up with the California Professor. The weekend provides the opportunity to pause and look back at the past week or so:
  • The Sept. 24 walkout came and went. Participation was substantial on every campus (between 500 and 1000 people attending the rallies), but not overwhelming, except of course at Berkeley
  • Demonstrators at UCSC even occupied the student center, and nobody noticed. The occupation is now over, and nobody notices that, either.
  • A few Chancellors (UCB, UCR, and — belatedly — UCD) were politically shrewd enough to release letters to the faculty, students, and staff saying "We are with you, not against you!" Chancellors on other campuses were silent (as far as I know: corrections welcome). At least someone in the higher echelons of UC's administration has some political sense. Birgeneau for UC President, anyone?
  • President Yudof's NYT interview continues to cause an uproar. We had already commented on the interview, but keep being astonished by the man's lack of political savvy. Yudof then swings the other way by offering a more balanced piece in the Chronicle, basically echoing his remarks to the Regents. This is representative of Yudof's difficulty staying on message: the NYT interview really is part George Costanza and part Silvio Berlusconi (without the sex addiction), and the Chronicle piece more representative of what a university president should be saying, even if we disagree on some parts.
  • In the meanwhile, UCD gets hit by one more scandal, the over-reporting of sexual assault statistics, which, according to Inside Higher Ed, might cost UCD as much as $3M in fines from the federal government. 
Among the various articles and op-ed pieces that have recently come out, the following are noteworthy (in no particular order):
  • Bob Herbert's well-meaning if not completely accurate NYT op-ed.
  • T.D. Elias's calling the furloughs and fee hikes for what they are: a tax on public employees and students.
  • The Guardian's wondering how the world's 8th-largest economy came to be broken.