Brown, Napolitano get A-plus for compromise on UC tuition

UC President Janet Napolitano talks with Gov. Jerry Brown during a UC Board of Regents meeting. Brown’s revised budget will shore up the university and head off a planned tuition increase.
UC President Janet Napolitano talks with Gov. Jerry Brown during a UC Board of Regents meeting. Brown’s revised budget will shore up the university and head off a planned tuition increase. The Associated Press

It shouldn’t have been this hard to do right by one of the world’s great institutions of higher learning, but on Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown finally came around on the University of California and loosened the state’s purse strings.

Budget negotiations have just started, of course, and Brown’s plan can improve, about which more later. But good for the governor, and good for UC President Janet Napolitano. If state lawmakers also like their deal, Brown’s decision to tack almost $500 million in one-time money onto his original funding proposal would avert a painful in-state tuition increase.

This is the least the state can do, after so much disinvestment. And Brown’s blueprint does some good things, such as forcing the university to deal with its debilitating pension liabilities and curb pensions for future hires.

But the new plan also makes sense because it doesn’t take the university for granted. Brown’s initial approach – a too-small bump in state funding and no tuition increase, take it or leave it – was too rigid, and almost flip in its implied insistence that the UC come down from its tweedy high horse.

Yes, the UC needs to be leaner, deal with administrators’ salaries, and move students more quickly, but the system, which has educated millions and produced more Nobel Prize winners than any public university in the nation, also is one of California’s signature triumphs. Taking a chain saw to the state’s investment in it isn’t like whacking line items at Caltrans.

The proposal comes with important conditions, and we hope the UC gets that. For instance, Brown wants to take some $436 million out of the state’s new rainy day fund over the next three years to help pay down the university’s pension liabilities.

The UC plan’s one big deficiency is in in-state enrollment, which lawmakers absolutely must increase.

In return, the UC will have to do some pension reform, which they’ve tried before, wanly. Compared to new state workers, university executives retire in Fat City. Brown and his finance director, Michael Cohen, were adamant that there will be no wiggle room this time, not even for top hiring prospects. So this aspect of UC’s culture will have to change.

Brown was strategic, looking to the state’s cap-and-trade gusher for help with some campus maintenance projects. His deal with Napolitano also OKs tuition hikes for out-of-staters and students in the professional schools, with an exception for law students, who, in this job market, surely have been soaked enough.

But there’s no mention of the financial aid that UC has been giving to out-of-staters. The Legislature should end it. It makes no sense to admit them as a supposed means of subsidizing in-state students, only to give them a rebate.

The plan’s biggest deficiency, though, is on enrollment. Though it reserves a third of admissions slots for community college transfers, it leaves no room for growth in in-state admissions. This is unacceptable. Educating Californians is the school’s core mission, and in-state enrollment must increase.

Many lawmakers agree, and we hope that between now and mid-June, they’ll figure out some cost-effective way to make more room for in-state students. California has a lot of ground to make up in its higher education commitment. But a good compromise is a thing of beauty, and Brown and Napolitano have come a long way.