Politics

Down on The Gown

The demand for fiscal accountability is graduating to the college level.
by | July 2007
 

While voters exact revenge over the perceived extravagance of legislators, some legislators are aiming similar darts at the top levels of state-sponsored higher education. California, for example, has been in a lather for months over reports of excessive compensation within its public university system. Every few weeks, another auditor or investigation seems to unearth fresh details about executives receiving big salaries for doing nothing--or receiving six-figure severance packages for retiring or resigning voluntarily.

California has been here before. A similar scandal unfolded a decade ago, and all the actors are playing their parts in much the same fashion again. The University of California claims that it's really done nothing wrong, although it will concede that its disclosure rules could have been followed a little more closely. Legislators fulminate that the top brass has been utterly hypocritical for cashing in while demanding ever-increasing tuition from students. "There's a lot of arrogance on UC's part," says state Senator Jeff Denham, one of several legislators who have called for the UC president's resignation. "I think they've felt like they've been above the law."

Many bills are floating around Sacramento to address this. Denham warns that new sets of regulations and disclosure requirements won't fix anything, since in his opinion UC has failed to follow the regulations that are out there now. He wants, therefore, to put the universities on a much tighter leash. Here he gets closer to the true meat of the matter.

The reason this issue has commanded so much attention is not ire over a few big paydays. What's frustrating the legislators in California is the same thing that frustrates their counterparts in other states. They depend on public universities to create jobs and the educated workforce to fill them, and yet they have very little say over what happens in those schools. "In Michigan, our universities are given great autonomy by our constitution," says Lorence Wenke, who chairs the state House Higher Education Committee. "Once we give them the dollars, we really don't have any authority over how they spend those dollars."

Many governors and legislators would like to impose the same type of accountability measures on colleges that K-12 schools now live under. They also nurse a wish that their universities would host fewer poetry classes and churn out more engineers and nurses. On the other hand, the major research universities note that state officials want to make greater demands while paying less and less of the bill. The share of the overall UC budget met by the state general fund is down below 20 percent--and it's even less at some prestigious public universities in other states. Indeed, some critics have begun to talk about the "privatization" of elite state universities, envisioning a future in which they will cease to be public institutions in any meaningful sense.

What would help is a debate about universities as public facilities-- what role they should serve and who should finance that role. That would be a more important exercise of legislative energy than expressing outrage each time another accounting firm unearths some egregious executive bonus. "There needs to be this larger public dialogue," says Steve Boilard, who serves as higher education director for the California Legislative Analyst's Office. "There is a greater expectation that the university not just do what it thinks best but be a more public institution."

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