Eight audits in four years? UC is getting strong-armed

One reason the University of California has kept its stature is its political autonomy.

The Legislature doesn’t control the UC, the better to shield academia from political pressure. But state lawmakers do have leverage: About $3.5 billion of the UC’s $32.5 billion operation comes from state appropriations.

State money makes up a bit less than half of the university’s core educational budget. So while the Legislature can constitutionally exert only so much muscle, that doesn’t mean it won’t try.

It’s against this backdrop that we should view Tuesday’s audit of the UC President’s Office, called for last year by Assemblymen Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Phil Ting, D-San Francisco.

The two, who lead the subcommittee and committee overseeing the UC budget, want to get more California students into the UC system. At the same time, state lawmakers have been pressured by UC President Janet Napolitano, who in 2014 threatened to raise tuition if the state didn’t give UC more funding.

The UC got its bump, and tuition remained flat until this year, when the Board of Regents approved a modest increase. But relations remain rocky. This week’s UC audit was the eighth in four years.

That’s a lot. And like last year’s audit – which dubiously claimed that in-state students were being crowded out of UC by the out-of-staters who actually help subsidize California enrollment – this week’s is as political as it is scathing.

The gist seems to be that Napolitano has paid UC employees more than other state workers; channeled extra funds into systemwide initiatives such as carbon neutrality and support services for undocumented students; and has squirreled away reserves in the university budget that, depending on the accounting method, amount to a shocking $175 million or a reasonable and prudent $38 million.

For these and other sins, State Auditor Elaine Howle recommends that Napolitano be forced to hand off UC operations to a third party, and to give the Legislature direct oversight of the president’s budget. In other words, more control for lawmakers, less for UC.

In fairness to McCarty and Ting, it’s no fun taking the flak when constituents complain that UC tuition is too high, or that UC Berkeley rejects their brilliant children. And they’re not the only lawmakers who have grappled with UC.

Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, has tried to term-limit the regents. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for new strategic directions. Gov. Jerry Brown famously clashed with Napolitano.

And pressure does work. Napolitano has made room for thousands more in-state students, and proposed a cap on nonresident enrollment.

But why drop references to “cover-ups” and “slush funds,” as the two lawmakers did Tuesday? Napolitano has been a solid leader. The university’s AA bond rating was just reaffirmed by Standard & Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s. She’s a former U.S. secretary of homeland security and Arizona governor, not some rookie.

Taxpayers deserve their money’s worth, and lawmakers should ask tough questions. But they shouldn’t be micromanaging and casting personal aspersions without proof. Nor should they undermine the UC’s independence, unless there has been malfeasance.

“Significant reforms are necessary to strengthen the public’s trust in the Office of the President,” concludes the audit. Sorry, but no, they are not.

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