What Janet Napolitano needs to do for the UC system

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Janet Napolitano at the Center for American Progress/ Creative Commons

By John Aubrey Douglass

Janet Napolitano, who officially takes over as president of the University of California this week, has experience as state attorney general in Arizona, as Arizona governor, and most recently as U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary. But she has no real experience in academia. Heading a major university appears never to have crossed her mind until a headhunter approached her about the job.

So why is she here and what will she do with a 10-campus system that is so important to the state’s future? My view from the trenches–I work at UC Berkeley—is that she is the power pick of a majority in an increasingly restless UC Board of Regents. They want someone substantial to deal with Sacramento and push the university faster toward some new, yet-to-be-determined economic model. In this, she may be the right fit. Her official duties are largely political: to negotiate with Sacramento over UC’s share of the state budget, decipher the wants and advice of the Regents, manage conflict and cooperation between the Chancellors (the people who actually run the campuses), and work with faculty’s Academic Senate on system-wide policies.

But in performing each of these duties, she will face the same problem: deep misperceptions among the state’s lawmakers and the public about the nature of UC’s challenges. Napolitano will have to push back against critics and explain what it has meant to the state to disinvest in UC over the past two generations – and how reinvestment would help maintain access to the UC system and serve the economic and social needs of the largest state in the Union.

It’s a tall order. But here are some of the things she’ll have to make people understand.

UC is not coasting on taxpayer money: For every one dollar from Sacramento (which has been cutting public support for UC for years), UC generates $19 from other sources, including tuition and research grants.

UC faculty are not underworked: The average load is now five courses a year, and the student-to-faculty ratio is 24 to 1, more than twice that of Stanford.

UC is not gouging poor Californians on tuition: it’s charging more to higher-income Californians in order to reduce the cost and debt of lower-income students and their families.

Via Flickr by 家有二顆糯米團/ Creative Commons
Via Flickr by 家有二顆糯米團/ Creative Commons (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

UC is not financially elitist: UC Berkeley and UCLA each have more low-income students than the entire Ivy League, and UC has undergraduate degree completion rates unmatched by any other research-intensive public university.

Online courses will not solve as much as we think: “traditional age” students (18-24 year olds) have extremely low completion rates in purely on-line courses. (Large classroom courses may be cheaper on a per-student basis than MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, when you factor in rates of completion of the course.)

UC hasn’t avoided downsizing: over the past five dismal years, administration overhead has been cut largely via layoffs, faculty salaries were cut by five percent, and faculty positions were reduced, placing UC behind its competitor public and private universities.

So what path is there for further reducing costs that Governor Jerry Brown and other critics desire? One grim answer stands out: Shrink. After years of taking on additional students without increases in funding, CSU reduced its enrollment by some 40,000 students. California’s community colleges have cut courses, leaving some 200,000 students unable to gain access to course offerings. Now UC has made forays in this direction, too.

But if UC shrinks in students and faculty, how can it hope to meet the current and future needs of California?

Even the harshest critics of UC say they want to keep UC’s doors open as the state grows. But the reality is that without a significant re-investment by the state, the resources for enrollment growth will not be there. In a deal cut with Governor Brown prior to Napolitano’s arrival, UC agreed to cap tuition in the near term in exchange for slightly more state funding. It’s an improvement – UC is now treading water instead of sinking. But the deal leaves UC with little incentive to expand access.

A fundamental question thus awaits President Napolitano: to grow UC or not to grow? Reverse the historic disinvestment in UC and rebuild for the long term, or stay on the present course? Recent years have been discouraging, but the desire for California to create a sustainable funding and organizational model for public higher education springs eternal. This is a political problem, and Napolitano is potentially a powerful political figure. While she walks into a challenging situation, she has walked into challenging situations before. Now is a time for optimism.

John Aubrey Douglass is Senior Research Fellow – Public Policy and Higher Education at UC Berkeley and the author of The California Idea and American Higher Education (Stanford University Press).