Mitchell’s Musings 6-5-17: What’s the problem at UC?

31 May 2017 6:50 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 6-5-17: What’s the problem at UC?[1]

Daniel J.B. Mitchell


Clark Kerr hands Master Plan to Gov. Pat Brown.


The University of California (UC) is a public university. As such, it competes for state funding with all other state programs. It has operated under a (gradually eroding) Master Plan for Higher Education that was put together in 1960 under the direction of the then-UC president, the legendary Clark Kerr, and shepherded into legislation by our current governor’s dad, Pat Brown. Spoiler alert: UC’s underlying economic problem is that the State has never fully adjusted to the end of the Cold War. Its underlying political problem is that doesn’t have the leadership (despite the fact that it is headed by a former governor) that can make true long-term deal with the state.



At the time of the original Master Plan (which actually expired in 1975, but somehow lives on), California was in what state historian Kevin Starr termed an age of “golden dreams.” Not only was the state promising every college-age student a place somewhere in the higher ed system – virtually for free – but it was building new campuses to accommodate them, both at UC and in what was then called the state college system (now California State University – CSU). Even those students with marginal high school records could get into a community college and then transfer to a public 4-year institution after two years. Moreover, new freeways were being opened. And an ambitious state water project being planned.


Gov. Pat Browns open a segment of the Santa Monica freeway in 1964.


Gov. Pat Brown promotes his planned State Water Project.


How was it possible for a single state to be doing all of these things, given normal budget constraints? Part of the answer has to do with the fact that there was less competition for state funds back then. If you ask how much was the state spending on Medicaid (called Medi-Cal in California) when the Master Plan was adopted in 1960, the answer is zero. The program didn’t exist at the time.

More importantly, there was an ongoing stimulus to the California economy (and thus indirectly to the state budget) that resulted from the military-related spending that was then going to the aerospace industry and related sectors. The stimulus was uneven – there were bumps in the road over time depending on hot wars and Cold War confrontations. But when the Soviet Union dissolved, the state stopped growing faster than the U.S. A very mild recession in the early 1990s for the rest of the U.S. led to a years-long California state budgetary crisis and shaky fiscal conditions which persist. Even the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, and the housing/mortgage boom of the mid-2000s, were unable to put California back on its old growth path.

In the age of golden dreams, and beyond until 1990, although there was a budget constraint in California and an increase in claims by social welfare programs (such as Medi-Cal), it was easier to allocate funds out of the rapidly-expanding pie than it is now. One dollar for X was not one dollar less for Y. In today’s average-growth world for California, however, there is a more unpleasant trade-off. The average American state is used to being average and has adapted its expectations. California is not used to being average and resists adaptation.


Above: California grew faster than the U.S. from statehood on, but got a special boost starting with World War II and ending around 1990. Thereafter, it essentially grew, and is projected to grow, at about the same rate as the U.S. as a whole. Below: Employment in California breaks away from (falls behind) the post-WWII trend starting in 1990.


I am telling an oversimplified story, of course. Fiscal aficionados of California would undoubtedly want me to say something about Prop 13 of 1978, for example, which drastically cut local property taxes and made the K-14 system heavily dependent on state support. Still, the underlying pressure resulting from the switch from state super-fast growth to average growth is an important part of the tale of UC’s dilemma.

One response of the state to being average has been to increase reliance on the income tax and, especially, the top brackets thereof. As a result, the state has a volatile tax base which depends heavily on the incomes of a relatively small group of high income taxpayers whose incomes often reflect the ups and downs of financial markets (capital gains), as well as the underlying real economy. 

Almost half of income tax receipts are received from the top 1 percent of filers.[2] In the governor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2017-18, the income tax is projected to account for seven out of ten dollars received by the state general fund.[3] As an illustrative anecdote, back in February 2012, the Legislative Analyst’s Office devoted a section of its report on the governor’s initial budget proposal for 2012-13 to the impact of the Facebook IPO and how much the state could collect in capital gains from Mark Zuckerberg & Co.[4]

When there are economic downturns, UC is particularly vulnerable because state support for it is seen as discretionary. The legislature knows, moreover that reductions in tax support for UC can be made up by tuition increases that it doesn’t have to approve. Indeed, it can blame the UC Regents for the increases, which is even better.

That observation brings me now to the Regents. Under the state constitution, the Regents have “autonomy.” But the legislature can always condition funding on the Regents doing something or not doing something. So the meaning of constitutional autonomy has never been clear. The legislature does show some deference to the Regents, given the constitution, but less so now than in the past.

So let’s look at the political side to UC’s problem. Back in the day, before voters approved term limits for legislators (in that fateful year of 1990!), legislators tended to stay in office for long periods and specialize in particular fields (such as higher education). UC’s legislative representatives – some would say lobbyists – would form relationships with the key personalities in the legislature who controlled UC’s appropriations and cut deals when needed. But that ability eroded under term limits as the legislative personalities kept changing. Schmoozing with a few lawmakers just doesn’t work like it used to.

Moreover, UC’s president has typically been an academic and political skills did not always accompany academic credentials. So, for example, when Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor after a recall election in 2003, the then-UC president, physicist Robert Dynes, rushed to sign a “compact” with him dealing with university funding. Remarkably, Dynes seemed to think that his compact meant something. But as soon as the state budget went south under Schwarzenegger, neither the governor nor the legislature paid much attention to the compact.


At budget presentations, Gov. Jerry Brown regularly highlights a chart on “unpredictable capital gains” as a component of state tax revenue.


The current governor, Jerry Brown, is actually in his second iteration in that office. He was first elected governor in 1974, reelected in 1978, and then went into political eclipse after an abortive run the for the U.S. senate in 1982. 

During his first iteration as governor, Jerry Brown had a tense relation with UC. The governor is an ex officio member of the Board of Regents and, in fact, is technically the “president” of the Board. But, as a matter of practice, most governors haven’t attended Regents meetings. Brown, however, took an interest in UC and does attend meetings. Why? He considers himself, if not the smartest guy in the room, then certainly the most profound questioner in the room. Brown was famous in his first iteration for promoting the idea that faculty should be content with their “psychic incomes” (as opposed to cash). There is still much of the old Brown in his attitude towards UC.

After emerging from his political eclipse, Brown was elected mayor of Oakland, then attorney general of the state, and finally governor in 2010 (reelected in 2014). As governor, as noted, he does show up at Regents meetings. At first, the Regents didn’t quite know how to handle him and generally played nice and went along with what he wanted. These things included more online education and a cut-rate pension plan for new hires, among others goals. 

Eventually, however, the Regents seems to reach the conclusion that they were being outgunned politically, both by legislature and the governor. To change that dynamic, they decided to appoint a former governor – Janet Napolitano of Arizona – as president instead of a traditional academic. Surely, a former governor – a politician - could deal with the politics of UC.



The most recent scandals.


Unfortunately, although Napolitano is more politically astute than many academic administrators, she doesn’t seem to have a sense of the underlying economic quandary facing UC that we noted at the outset. So she concedes what the governor and legislature want whenever they push hard enough or when there is a scandal. For example, the pension deal she cut with the governor has a real downside, but the governor pushed for it so she met with him in private (in what was termed the “Committee of Two”) and proclaimed the result to be a done deal.

UC admitted more out-of-state students during its most recent budget crisis (because they pay higher tuition), contributing to the popular notion that the reason Johnny didn’t get into Berkeley was because of these outsiders.[5] (The question of why there are more outsiders is not always asked – or is ignored.) So after the legislature fussed about out-of-state students, the UC president agreed to admit more in-state students and cap out-of-staters, although not with sufficient funding to pay for the extra admits and for the needed added facilities and services.

Most recently, there has been a clash with the California state auditor over UC’s budget reserves and a brouhaha about super-expensive dinners for the Regents. As these problems arise and receive attention in the news media, Napolitano – as a politician – detects that something must be done in response to quiet the controversy. That’s good. But it is basically a firefighting skill. And the lesson drawn is that if you want something from UC, you have to create enough of a controversy so that legislators start to threaten. UC agreed to do what the auditor said should be done about reserves. And UC ended the dinners. The pressures arising from the bad PR were sufficient to bring a swift result.



Firefighting the recent scandals.


But consider another controversy involving outsourcing. UC-San Francisco, the medical campus, outsourced various information technology jobs to India. Particularly in the age of Trump (in which issues of outsourcing and job displacement by foreigners have been highlighted), you might think that the UC president would quickly override the decision. But despite complaints delivered to the Regents and adverse publicity in the news media, the issue never got enough traction in the legislature for UC to change course. There was a fuss, but not a big enough fuss.


So far, not enough legislative traction to obtain a result.


This reactive approach by UC doesn’t get to the heart of things. Given the fact that California is no longer in its one-time age of golden dreams, and that prospects for a renewed golden period are slim, what is needed now is a new Master Plan. Such a plan has to be far more than the useless “compact” UC had with Gov. Schwarzenegger. It can’t be a hasty deal between the UC president and the governor, another Committee of Two arrangement. The legislature must be involved, the stakeholders within the university must be involved, and outside interest groups must also be involved. There has to be an encompassing political process.

The University of Michigan’s arrangement with its state is sometimes referred to as the “Michigan Model.” Essentially, the deal in Michigan is something like what happened to UC as state funding was restricted, i.e., tuition increases, expanding admissions of out-of-state students paying a premium to raise revenue, etc. But it was done in Michigan through a process that involved the key stakeholders including the outside interest groups. It might be noted that the University of Michigan was headed at the time by an academic economist, Harold Shapiro, who could see where the Michigan economy was going long term. In short, hiring a politician to run a university system gives you short-term political sensibilities, but not necessarily a strategic vision.

In any case, UC’s problem is that it has stumbled into the Michigan Model (higher tuition; more out-of-state students) on an ad hoc basis without ever having a Michigan-type accord. Unfortunately, the ad hoc approach doesn’t work very well. Eventually, the legislature, the public, the interest groups, and the internal stakeholders say they never agreed to it and the approach falters.

At one time, when politics in California were more balanced, there were such things as centrist Republicans in the state, business types who saw UC as contributing to the state economy. Thus, Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial successor after his first iteration, Republican George Deukmejian, took pains despite the budget crisis Brown bequeathed to him in 1983, to substitute competitive pay for UC faculty in place of psychic income. His rationale was simply standard labor market analysis, an approach easily understood by business-type Republicans.

But now Republicans in California tend to be tea party types who don’t like UC because it is seen as elite. And they are particularly turned off by misbehavior on the left: riots over guest speakers, demands for safe spaces, etc. There will be no George Deukmejian-type candidates in the next gubernatorial election (2018) to rescue UC, since there are no Deukmejian-style Republicans left in California who are capable of winning a statewide election. On the Democratic side, the candidate who is most prominent at the moment is the current lieutenant governor who is, like the governor, an ex officio member of the Regents. Nothing in his behavior on the Regents so far gives me reason to hope he will be a friend of UC should there be another budget crisis.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is plenty the Regents could do, and UC administrators could do, to improve efficiency. Huge capital expenditures are routinely approved by the Regents without a capability for real review of plans or alternatives. The Regents are unpaid part-timers meeting once every two months and they have their day jobs to worry about. So their ability to oversee UC – now a vastly more complicated entity than when the Master Plan was developed - is more limited than they would like to admit. But the notion that if only “waste, fraud, and abuse” were vanquished, Johnny could get into Berkeley is simply wrong. You can complain that the Regents and/or UC top brass have “tin ears.” But even with the most acute ears on the part of UC’s powers-that-be, Johnny’s odds at getting into Berkeley won’t materially improve.

Back when the Master Plan was enacted, there were about five and half million Californians under age 18, the potential seedbed of future college admissions. At the time of the 2010 Census, there were about 9.3 million in that age bracket, i.e., less than a doubling. Even allowing for the fact that a larger fraction of high school graduates want to go to a 4-year undergraduate institution now than back in 1960, the fact is that the number of UC enrolled undergraduates who were California residents more than quadrupled from around 40,000 to 176,000 over that interval. But there is still only one Berkeley campus. There is no way they all could go to Berkeley.

The Master Plan of 1960 projected increased enrollments, but dealt with them mainly by adding new campuses. So, if anything, it is easier for Johnny to get into UC somewhere than it was in 1960, but not into Berkeley. Indeed, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) believes that the Master Plan target of UC offering admission to just the top 12.5 percent of high school graduates is currently being exceeded.[8]

Gov. Brown said at a Regents meeting that as far as Berkeley admissions is concerned “you got your foreign students and you got your 4.0 folks, but just the kind of ordinary, normal students, you know, that got good grades but weren’t at the top of the heap there – they’re getting frozen out.”[9] And indeed they are. But that freezing has nothing to do with lavish Regents’ dinners or sloppy accounting for reserves at UC headquarters.

What does it have to do with? Actually, although it’s hard to find good historical data online, the Berkeley campus’ undergraduate enrollment appears to have expanded significantly as the under-18 population in the state has expanded, although probably not proportionately.[10] But more high school graduates now want to go to college than in 1960. Cost-cutting pressures have encouraged more transfer students (who spend their first two years in community college), so getting in via good grades and scores as a freshman is now more constrained. There are pressures on the university from the legislature for diversity in admissions. So despite Prop 207, the 1996 voter initiative banning “affirmative action,” admissions have become more “holistic,” i.e., less focused on grades and scores. Finally, there is relative pricing.

Yes, UC tuition went up as state budget appropriations were squeezed. But for in-state students, tuition cuts two ways. On the negative side, it is a lot more expensive to go to Berkeley than it was in 1960. But Berkeley is cheaper than, say, Stanford or most other privates for many applicants. So if you want to get into Berkeley as a freshman via grades and scores, demand for slots is up for that route – but when it comes to supply, not so much.

Bottom line: Unless UC leadership sits down with state politicos and other stakeholders and interest groups concerned with the future of UC and develops an accord concerning the alternatives for funding, the long-run prospects are for continued firefighting. Quality erosion and decay could be the consequences. There are no guarantees that a better future can be produced by a deliberate and probably difficult political process to produce a new Master Plan. But the current approach of ad hoc adjustments to crisis and pressure, even with a former governor at UC’s helm, is not working very well.



[1] Some thoughts for the June 4, 2017 panel in Anaheim, California on “Shifting Employment Relations in American Higher Education,” Labor and Employment Relations Association.  



[4] See pp. 25-26.  

[5] I focus the issue on UC-Berkeley because, as will be noted below, Gov. Jerry Brown (as an alumnus) has that focus.


[7] The 1960 data do not separate California residents from non-residents. So the 40,000 figure is an overstatement of Californians.  



[10] Enrollment in 1960 was reported as a little over 15,000. See “Berkeley Campus Enrollment Rises,” Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1960, p. A5. In 2010, it was about 25,000 of which around three fourths were California residents.

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