Capitol Alert Breaking

For Jerry Brown, tough going with UC regents

From left, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Gov. Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano hear students speak at the Board of Regents meeting on Thursday.
From left, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Gov. Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano hear students speak at the Board of Regents meeting on Thursday. The Associated Press

It was only the opening of a months-long budget negotiation when the University of California’s governing board voted Thursday to raise tuition if the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown don’t give the university system more money.

Brinksmanship is common in budget talks. So, oftentimes, is reconciliation.

Yet the animosity with which Brown and the Board of Regents fought this week in San Francisco laid bare how far apart the governor and one of the state’s most powerful institutions have become – and how difficult it will be for Brown to exert influence over UC in his fourth term.

Despite his Yale law degree and fondness for obscure texts and intellectual acquaintances, the 76-year-old Democrat has long been skeptical of academia. This is a politician who said when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, that professors can be paid less because of “psychic income” they derive from their jobs.

More recently, Brown has admonished UC to “get more grounded” in its approach to education, and this week he urged the system to cut costs instead of raising tuition.

In a 14-7 vote, the Board of Regents demonstrated its willingness to resist Brown, as did UC President Janet Napolitano. The rollout of her plan to raise tuition by as much as 5 percent annually over each of the next five years appeared to take the administration off guard. Brown officials said UC was breaking a budget deal.

In his budget documents, the governor had conditioned modest annual funding increases to UC on the system holding tuition flat. But the two sides never made a formal pact preventing a tuition increase, and Napolitano held fast.

Last year, when Napolitano was named president, Brown praised her “strength of character” and “outsider’s mind.”

At the time, Brown said in a prepared statement that “it will be exciting to work with her.”

But at a hearing this week where Brown brought up his decades of experience reviewing budgets, Napolitano, a former homeland security secretary and governor of Arizona, told him she, too, has “a fair amount of experience” in the area.

Then, looking at an alternative plan presented by Brown to create a commission to consider cost reductions and other systemwide issues, Napolitano said, “We don’t have time to wait for another commission.”

“Maybe we’ll actually get some really nifty ideas out of it,” she said. “That’s always possible, but the budget process moves along.”

Following the tuition vote Thursday, Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group in San Jose, said the dispute between Brown and regents is the latest reflection of an “insular” university system and a governor who, while “showing up and asking good questions,” has done so in a “fairly non-strategic way.”

“These are complex institutions,” Callan said. “They know how to wait governors out.”

Napolitano’s ability to maneuver around Brown is the product of UC’s independent administration by the regents, constitutionally subject to only limited legislative oversight. This has protected the institution from the kind of broader changes Brown has enacted in law enforcement, with prison realignment, and in K-12 education, with the shift of more money to poor and English-learning students.

But the budget is one of the few areas in which Brown does have leverage over UC, and he has used it to exert pressure on the institution in recent years.

After voters authorized Brown’s ballot measure to raise taxes in 2012, the governor agreed to moderate increases in the UC budget as long as the system does not raise tuition through the 2016-17 budget year. But he has been unwilling to open the state’s purse further, and regents this week said the funding is not enough.

Earlier this year, Brown vetoed part of a budget bill that would have awarded an additional $50 million each to the University of California and California State University systems for deferred maintenance the systems deem critical.

“Making investments to maintain the state’s aging infrastructure continues to be a major priority for my administration, as is paying down the state’s debts and reducing other long-term liabilities,” Brown wrote in his veto message. “However, we are nearly one quarter into the fiscal year now and we should not commit additional General Fund monies of this magnitude when we are facing unanticipated costs such as fighting the state’s extreme wildfires.”

During public hearings this week, Regent Sherry Lansing said she was “extraordinarily confused” by the veto. UC “wouldn’t be in this position” of discussing tuition increases, Lansing said, if Brown had been more forthcoming with money for higher education.

Brown paid relatively little attention to UC for the first two years of his term, but when he took interest starting in late 2012, he did so with force.

“We are going to have to restrain this system in many, many of its elements,” Brown said that year, “and this will come with great resistance.”

He accused UC of failing to graduate enough students within four years and argued, among other things, for expanded online course offerings.

Brown’s push for online learning remains largely unfulfilled, and he pressed for it again in his proposal this week. He also urged regents to consider ways to help students complete degrees in three years and to grant credits to students who demonstrate academic competence through work or other experience.

Brown’s father, the late Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, oversaw an expansion of the state’s university system during his administration, and the current governor told regents that “I love the life of the mind.”

However, he said, “I would like to look at this not at a rhetorical level or an abstract level, but a very concrete level.”

Brown is a relatively moderate Democrat, and notoriously frugal. But he also holds egalitarian impulses, and the University of California is not only a public institution, but elite.

There are political considerations, as well.

“No lawmaker in the current era, or probably in the past, will probably ever openly support tuition increases,” said John Aubrey Douglass, a senior research fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education.

Brown’s measurable impact on the proceedings Thursday was in dissenting votes registered by two regents Brown appointed to the board on Monday: former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and Eloy Ortiz Oakley, superintendent-president of Long Beach City College.

But Brown does not control a majority of votes, and three regents Brown reappointed earlier this year all voted against him. Among them was Richard Blum, the Blum Capital Partners LP founder and husband of Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

In a pointed exchange with Brown, Blum lamented UC’s loss of standout faculty members to elite institutions that are willing to pay them more.

“Richard,” Brown said, “I want to point out that you run an investment banking operation. This is a public university.”

Brown also called UC’s chief financial officer, Nathan Brostrom, out by name, saying some employees in the Governor’s Office “operate on a level equal to Nathan, but at a much lower salary.”

He said the university can “lead by the way it compensates people,” adding, “I’m quite confident people will get very excited about an institution that has a moral depth that transcends the vagaries of the marketplace.”

The next day, Brown sat beside Napolitano as the board voted on the tuition increase. The roll was called over students’ chants of protest, which grew so loud Brown initially did not hear his name being called.

When he did, he signaled his vote with his left hand, thumb down.

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders. Alexei Koseff of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report

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