Editorials

How much more budget wizardry will we demand of UC?

University of California President Janet Napolitano talks with Gov. Jerry Brown during a UC Board of Regents meeting earlier this year in San Francisco. The regents on Thursday approved a plan to increase enrollment next year.
University of California President Janet Napolitano talks with Gov. Jerry Brown during a UC Board of Regents meeting earlier this year in San Francisco. The regents on Thursday approved a plan to increase enrollment next year. Associated Press file

It’s unclear in the short term where the University of California is magically going to put 5,000 more in-state undergraduates and 2,000 more graduate students. Nonetheless, we applaud the latest plan to expand enrollment and hope it works out.

After a budget year in which UC President Janet Napolitano had to fight Gov. Jerry Brown for an increase in state funding, the UC Board of Regents on Thursday approved a proposal to dramatically ramp up California enrollment next year, a condition of a $25 million incentive that was dangled in June by state lawmakers.

At the time, the offer seemed a parting dig in a long, ugly funding battle. Brown and Napolitano already had reached a tentative agreement to cover UC operations at its existing head count, but state legislators wanted more California kids – particularly more black and brown kids – to get a shot at a UC diploma. And Napolitano’s negotiating tactics had made them mad.

So they told her that if she starved spending enough to enroll an extra 5,000 freshmen and transfers in 2016, she’d get a $25 million bump, enough to reimburse UC for about half of the expansion.

Given the wringer UC had already been through, the stretch seemed unlikely. But this is the season when the governor’s finance people draft next year’s budget proposals.

So after complaining that every UC penny was already committed, Napolitano now says – abracadabra! – she can make the expansion happen. Her plan phases out need-based financial aid for out-of-state undergraduates, makes some smaller cuts and uses short-term borrowing to scrape together the university’s share of the total $50 million price.

Napolitano says every campus will get some new enrollment, though it isn’t clear how she’ll address the obvious space issues. The dorms, labs and classrooms at the most popular campuses such as UC Berkeley are jammed.

She also wants $6 million more from the state to add graduate students to help with faculty workloads. And this year’s boost would be just one of three. Napolitano wants to add 2,500 more students in each of the two following school years. So this year’s budget battle probably won’t be the last.

Fine. But for the record, it’s one thing to be fiscally prudent, and another for this state to constantly reproach itself for investing in higher education. There’s something small and sad about our leaders’ ongoing ambivalence toward our world-class university system.

If the UCs matter – and they do – Californians should stop pretending there’s some Houdini-like way to stretch forever and still have universities that are, well, magical.

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