The confrontation between Gov. Jerry Brown and the University of California is ostensibly about money.
Last week, over Brown’s objections and at the behest of President Janet Napolitano, UC’s Board of Regents voted 14-7 to raise tuition by 5 percent a year over the next five years unless the state coughs up more support.
However, money involved – less than $150 million a year – is merely a pittance relative to the immense university system’s budget and even more infinitesimal vis-à-vis the state’s $100-plus billion in annual spending.
Were it just about money, it could be resolved easily, as are other budgetary issues. Those involved would work out a compromise.
The money just symbolizes, however, a larger conflict that’s simmered, and occasionally boiled over, for decades. It’s the control of a world-class university system that’s constitutionally independent, but largely dependent on money from the state budget and whose governing board is composed of politicians, including the governor, and political appointees.
UC tends to flaunt its supposed independence from financial and pedagogic decrees from Sacramento while governors and legislators see UC as divorced from the real world and resent being ignored.
Occasionally, this perennial friction erupts into open conflict – basically over who’s really in charge – and this is one of those occasions.
Brown, who graduated from the University of California in 1961, has been there before.
During his first governorship four decades ago, he suggested that college professors should be content with “psychic income” rather than pressing for higher salaries, which reverberated through academe.
Brown 2.0 has been even tighter with a public buck and pressed both UC and the state university system to become more efficient by adopting new technology, such as online learning.
“We are going to have to restrain this (UC) system in many, many of its elements,” Brown said in 2012, “and this will come with great resistance.”
No kidding. When UC regents hired Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona and Obama administration official, as its new president last year, she quickly became a pugnacious champion of restoring state aid that had been slashed during the state’s periodic budget crises.
Brown believed he was being generous in offering incremental increases in support in return for freezing tuitions, but the regents and Napolitano were adamant, leading to last week’s showdown.
Is compromise possible? Brown, having been publicly rebuffed, may believe that he has to teach UC a lesson.
Safely re-elected to his final term, he could ignore UC’s demands and let Napolitano, et al., take the heat from students and their families for raising tuition.
The ball in this political pingpong game is now on his side of the table.
Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.