Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown, Janet Napolitano form committee of two

Gov. Jerry Brown, right, gestures while speaking out against tuition increases as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, listens during a November meeting of the University of California Board of Regents in San Francisco.
Gov. Jerry Brown, right, gestures while speaking out against tuition increases as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, listens during a November meeting of the University of California Board of Regents in San Francisco. The Associated Press

University of California President Janet Napolitano could hardly have been more dismissive when Gov. Jerry Brown proposed in November that, instead of threatening to raise tuition, UC create a commission to find ways to reduce costs.

Even if it resulted in some “really nifty ideas,” Napolitano said, “We don’t have time to wait for another commission.”

But two months after Napolitano and UC’s governing board moved ahead with their funding demand – and two weeks after Brown rejected it in his annual budget plan – the two sides appeared Wednesday to inch nearer resolution.

Without dissent, a panel of regents endorsed forming a committee consisting of two members – Brown and Napolitano – to consider cost reductions and other systemwide issues.

Napolitano said she and Brown will be “engaged deeply and holistically in looking at the university and its future.”

The meetings will be private, and the agenda is wide-ranging, including everything from teaching loads and compensation to pension and health benefits. Napolitano and Brown also plan to discuss online education and proposals to grant credits for work experience and to consider degrees that might require only three years of study.

The full Board of Regents is expected to approve formation of the committee of two on Thursday.

Brown and Napolitano do not require the imprimatur of a committee to meet. But the formalization of their talks is likely to prompt a cease-fire in tuition talks at the Capitol, as lawmakers wait for Brown and Napolitano to report back in March.

Both the governor and UC president are under pressure to avoid unpopular tuition increases, with the Democratic-controlled Legislature considering proposals ranging from increased funding to a constitutional amendment to strip UC of its constitutional autonomy.

Dean Florez, a former Democratic state senator and president of the 20 Million Minds Foundation, said Napolitano is a “great politician.” With lawmakers even talking about a constitutional amendment, he said, she “is smart enough to say, ‘Let me take this out of the hands of the Legislature.’ ”

The one-on-one with Brown will match two divergent views of UC, with Napolitano deeply invested in the institution’s research mission and Brown more skeptical of academia.

“It’s going to be interesting, because these two people have every different philosophies about the University of California,” Florez said. “I think it’s going to be fascinating … I’ve watched these two up close. They are seasoned, and Napolitano doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and nor does Jerry Brown.”

Napolitano, a former Homeland Security secretary and governor of Arizona, angered the Brown administration when she proposed – and the Board of Regents approved – raising tuition by as much as 5 percent annually over each of the next five years if Brown and the Legislature did not give the system more money than proposed. Brown had promised a more modest funding increase, but on the condition that tuition remain flat.

In response, Brown held fast in his budget plan this month, including the expected $120 million funding increase and tying the amount not only to his condition that tuition remain unchanged, but also to the UC capping nonresident enrollment.

In a statement at the time, Napolitano said she was “disappointed” in Brown’s proposal.

Napolitano continued to press Wednesday for more money from the state, lamenting “years of public disinvestment” in the UC system.

For his part, Brown urged reconsideration of boundaries separating UC from community colleges and the California State University system. He said “it’d be nice if we could pick and choose courses” between the systems.

Of the structure of his upcoming meetings with Napolitano, Brown said regardless of disagreements, “we won’t have any more than two opinions, and that’s good.”

Brown and Napolitano are expected to meet every few weeks for several months, presenting a preliminary report in March. Brown stressed that the committee is only advisory.

“This is an inquiry that whatever thoughts we get, or facts, will come before the board, and we’ll talk about it,” he said.

Brown and Napolitano sat at the board meeting Wednesday with an empty seat between them, but tension was less pronounced than in November. And aside from a heavy security presence and a glass door broken by student protesters that remained unfixed, little of the contentious November meeting was reflected in the proceedings.

Only a handful of students came to the public comment period to speak against the proposed tuition increase.

“We are here to work with you,” said Akshaya Natarajan, a first-year student at University of California, Santa Barbara.

When Regent John A. Pérez, the former Assembly speaker who was appointed by Brown only days before the November tuition vote, requested that a repeal of the threat be added to the board’s March agenda for consideration, he was mostly brushed aside by his colleagues.

“I’m not interested in debating the entire thing all over again,” Regent George Kieffer said.

Regent Sherry Lansing said she was “extraordinarily optimistic” about the outcome of the meetings between Brown and Napolitano.

“I believe they’re going to come to a conclusion that’s going to be very, very beneficial for all of us,” she said.

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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