Politics & Government

Janet Napolitano pushes UC to front line of California budget battle

UC President Janet Napolitano at her office in Oakland on Dec. 9.
UC President Janet Napolitano at her office in Oakland on Dec. 9. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Last month, University of California President Janet Napolitano broadsided Gov. Jerry Brown with a threat to raise tuition by more than a quarter over the next five years unless UC receives more money from the state.

Her move launched one of next year’s most contentious budget battles, if the heated debate over state funding and the university’s cost structure that followed is any indication.

But on a recent afternoon, Napolitano, who pushed the UC Board of Regents to endorse her plan over Brown’s objections at a tense November meeting, downplayed her differences with the governor.

“It’s too easy to say this is mano a mano,” Napolitano said in her 12th-floor office overlooking downtown Oakland. The dark wood-paneled room features memorabilia from Napolitano’s own stint as governor of Arizona, including a saddle given to her by the governor of Sonora, across the Mexican border. Atop sits a stuffed anteater, the mascot for UC Irvine.

“This is not a boxing match. This is not a sports arena we’re in.”

The push for more funding, however, marks the most significant test of Napolitano’s political acumen since the former Homeland Security secretary was hired in 2013.

That same year, Brown proposed a structured four-year budget increase in exchange for an extended tuition freeze, and he has since shot down several attempts to give UC additional appropriations, frequently encouraging the university to reduce the cost of educating students. It’s unclear whether Napolitano can convince him that UC needs more money, to expand enrollment and cover growing retirement costs.

She has the confidence of top university officials like Regent George Kieffer, who said Napolitano’s previous leadership experience made her just the sort of fearless political advocate UC needs after years of disinvestment from the state.

“Janet Napolitano is why” higher education funding is back on the public agenda, Kieffer said in an interview. “When you have that kind of experience, and know that you do (survive) in the end, you decide that you’ll do what’s right and take your lumps if you have to.”

Napolitano said she hopes to change the governor’s mind by jointly exploring the “real costs of a quality higher education” with him.

“Imagine California without the University of California,” she said. “It would be a much different place in decades to come. And not for the better, I would add.”

She characterized her relationship with Brown as “good,” noting that they have spoken at length since the regents meeting.

“He and I obviously have some differences of opinion. That’s healthy,” Napolitano said, “as long as we both have in mind, and I think we do, that we need to work together to make sure this university remains the gem that it is.”

In the Legislature, the UC’s proposed tuition hike has been met with a range of responses, from proposals for increased funding to a constitutional amendment that would strip the university of the autonomy it has had for more than a century.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León is among those who have joined Napolitano’s call to “reinvest” in higher education. Backed by other Senate Democrats, he announced a plan in December that would increase supplemental fees for out-of-state students and repurpose a middle-class scholarship to “buy out” the tuition hike. De León said he told Napolitano in a telephone call, “I respect your moxie.”

“She wants the same thing that we want. And we want the same thing she wants,” de León said at a news conference to discuss the plan. “We may go about it in a different way.”

Other lawmakers, including Sens. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, and Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, who jointly introduced the constitutional amendment, have been less kind.

Cannella said he has been “frustrated with the UC system for some time” over tuition increases that far exceed inflation, rising administrative costs and a lack of fiscal transparency.

“We’re giving away all this money without much say,” he said in an interview, pointing to a 2011 audit of UC’s budget that turned up a $1 billion “miscellaneous fund” for which the university could not tell Cannella what purpose it served.

Cannella said he would only support a tuition increase or augmenting UC’s general fund appropriation once he knew the university was “as lean and mean as can be.”

“They’ve got to clean their house first,” he said. “You can’t just keep throwing money at problems.”

Napolitano dismissed the notion that UC is so “radically broken” it must lose its independence. She said there is abundant accountability for how the university uses state funding – “more reports than I can count” – and she is adamant UC officials have already “done some very innovative things” to address budget shortfalls, cutting more than $400 million over the past four years to funnel back into academics and research.

She is particularly rankled by criticism of growth in the university’s executive class and chancellor salaries, several of which were raised by 20 percent over the summer. Napolitano insists administrative costs per student have dropped over the last five years.

“This is a very personnel-driven enterprise, and at some point, the numbers are the numbers,” she said. “You’re not just cutting the outside, you’re eviscerating the core.”

Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.

Janet Napolitano

Age: 57

Title: President, University of California

Résumé highlights: Served as Secretary of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013. Third woman elected as governor of Arizona in 2002. Represented Anita Hill during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her.

Chief goal in 2015: Securing more funding for UC, to expand enrollment, improve student services and cover growing retirement costs.

Biggest challenge in 2015: Convincing Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to appropriate more money for higher education in the state budget, especially as the possibility of a tuition hike hangs over UC students.

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