I just received a mass-mailing telling us UC’s latest initiative to solve its budget problem: “It is critical that we work together to prevent still deeper funding cuts by reminding lawmakers in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington, D.C. of the vital role UCLA plays in serving our community and as an engine for the California economy.  Now, more than ever, we need faculty and staff to take UCLA‚s (sic) message to elected officials.”  ?!?  In other words, the exact same message that UC sent as strongly as it could before the current budget cuts, and the ones before that, ad nauseum.

Sorry, but this message failed before and will almost certainly fail again.  By continuing with this business-as-usual strategy, UC’s leaders show that they are in denial.  They don’t seem to understand that the economy is headed for increasingly dire straights, and that the old arguments will not sway a legislature desperate to make ever more cuts.

To my mind, this also continues a basic misconception.  In my last post about UC’s budget troubles, I opined that UCOP has fundamentally misunderstood who its constituency should be.  They have always acted on the assumption that their true constituency is the governor and legislature.  The theory is that if we make nice with these powerful people, they’ll give us “most favored budget item” status.  This may work in good years — e.g. UC got the governor to sign a “Compact” that guarantees UC’s budget… until the state has budget problems, at which point it goes out the window!

It’s these “bad years” that really highlight UC’s confusion about its constituency.  They have two knee-jerk reflexes to the legislature cutting UC’s budget: first, bend over backwards to try to please their politician masters (e.g. “these budget cuts must not result in cuts in services because that would make the legislature angry!”); second, immediately screw the general public by raising student fees.  This shows starkly who they think they need to appeal to: the legislature and governor, not the general public.

If you take a step back, you can see a massive change in public policy being enacted without the voters ever being asked their opinion: by defunding UC, politicians are taking away Californians’ access to affordable, top-rank education.  If Californians had been asked to vote on whether this is what they want, I don’t think it would have passed.  But of course, they never were given a chance to vote on this.  Politicians have gotten away mostly scot-free from the consequences of this unpopular act, largely because UC has in effect taken the responsibility onto its own head, by its policy of relentless student fee increases.  When Californians think about the disappearance of affordable higher education, they think “UC wants to raise fees again?!?”, not “I’m going to vote my representative out of office for passing those budget cuts”.

The bottom-line: in the coming budget wars, having “friends” in the legislature won’t save you.  They will have to make budget cuts, and the politically powerful will get cut less, while the politically weak will get cut more.  “Politically powerful” means one thing to a politician: “the power to make me win or lose my next election”.  Example: this spring, at the same time it was enacting UC’s budget cuts, the legislature voted not to enact an “oil severance tax”, even though California is the only oil-producing state without such a tax (i.e. oil companies do not have to pay California for the oil that they extract from California’s soil).  This was at least a $1 billion per year gift to the oil industry.  I guess it should surprise no one that oil companies rate higher on our legislators’ scale of political power than UC does.

There is only one way to fix this: UC must build a political base among its true constituency, California’s voters (many of whom are UC graduates).  This should not be that hard to do.  The two basic elements are

  • preserving what made California great: the best affordable education system in the US.  UC is our legacy; our parents and grandparents built it, and passed it on to us.  We owe it to our children not to trash  this “goose that lays golden eggs”.
  • reinventing California: California’s universities are our best hope for rebuilding our economy, through high-tech, through clean energy innovations, through research and invention.

The goal would be to pass a ballot initiative that reserves some specified funding formula for UC — a “compact with the people of California” if you will.  If unpopular groups like the oil industry and prison guards union can make California politics work for them so successfully, why can’t a treasured institution with broad appeal, like UC?

I’m afraid I don’t see our current UC leaders as capable of launching the new direction that’s needed to reconnect UC to the people.  They’ve spent their whole lives working in a political system whose assumptions are now obsolete.  I was startled this spring when they assured the UCLA faculty that the bond ballot initiatives would pass.  A few weeks later the ballot initiatives all failed, and the administration’s budget projections had to be trashed.  Similarly, they rammed through $180 million spending for Pauley Pavilion this year, despite the fact that less than a third of that $180 million had actually been donated.  Leaving aside the question of priorities (i.e. whether UCLA should be raising money for basketball stadiums instead of academics, at a time of massive budget cuts to its core education and research mission), you have to ask whether this is sound fiscal policy.  UCLA is taking on at least $60 million in debt on the assumption it will be able to recoup the total cost of the project from donations and increased ticket prices.  In a sinking economy such rosy expectations often fail: expected donations fail to materialize because the donor’s assets dropped in value; people can no longer afford expensive season tickets.  Anecdotally, my barber tells me that all his clients are incensed about the ticket price increases, and say they’ll just stop buying tickets.  The administration’s decision to spend $180 million on Pauley Pavilion now (at the same time as the core mission is being cut faster and faster) reveals that they don’t understand how serious the coming economic troubles will be, nor how this fundamentally alienates everyone who works for UCLA’s real mission (teaching and research).

They are playing catch-up in a game they do not understand, whose rules have changed.