After criticism from one end of California to the other, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, has rewritten his latest attack on the constitutional autonomy of the University of California. It’s almost as pointless and offensive as the first.
Rather than shortening and limiting the terms of the Board of Regents so that they can’t outlast the governors who appoint them, Lara now wants to retain the regents’ 12-year terms, but only let them serve one. The new version of SCA 1, set to come Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments, is, as before, a solution in search of a problem, and the committee should reject it.
Lara has sought repeatedly to exert legislative control over the UC. Though he may be the most persistent, he’s not the first politician to try to put California’s crown jewel of public higher education in its place.
The UC was given constitutional autonomy from the Legislature for good reasons. It’s a public university, with a mission that’s supposed to transcend politics. Whose children get into UC Berkeley, which professors get tenure, what subjects get taught, how much of the budget should go toward whose research – such things are supposed to be about merit, not political muscle.
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All SCA 1 would do is create a space to politically pressure the UC and narrow the governor’s choices to allow only inexperienced regents.
Public universities need to guarantee academic freedom and fair admissions standards. And so far, the university has done well, though not all its constituencies tend to be satisfied at the same time. The system includes some of the most highly regarded research universities in the nation, and legislators do have considerable sway, both in confirming regent appointments and in appropriating state funding.
Lara has legitimate complaints about the university, but limiting regents’ terms would not address any of the frustrations he has mentioned. It would not make room for more in-state students or make tuition cheaper or get more Latino students admitted to UCLA and UC Berkeley. It wouldn’t necessarily even diversify the regents, a board that tends to be richer, older and whiter than the rest of the state because appointees are often among a governor’s top supporters. Vacancies, as they occur, would still be filled in 18 of the 26 seats by the governor, whoever he or she might be.
All SCA 1 would do is create a space to politically pressure the UC and narrow the governor’s choices to allow only inexperienced regents. Like all term limits, it would shrink the pool of potential public servants and limit the contribution of talented people. We shouldn’t amend the constitution on such flimsy grounds.