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If something is broken, people tend to want to fix it. But when the something in question is surrounded by other complex and potentially deficient systems, as seems to be the case for the University of California, how does one even begin to figure out to fix it?

Faced with decreased state appropriations, dysfunctional state politics, potential federal funding cuts, and increasing demands on resources, several University of California administrators have proposed changes to the system’s governance model, which currently rests authority for the university’s 10 institutions in a single systemwide Board of Regents, most of whose members are appointed by state politicians.

First there was the proposal by UC-San Francisco, a graduate-only institution focused on medicine, seeking to limit the system’s authority over the institution and allow it to retain more of the money it generates. Then, a few weeks ago, the outgoing chancellor of UC-Berkeley co-authored a paper with several campus administrators proposing individual campus governing boards that would assume much of the work of the system’s Board of Regents. Other proposals, including changing the makeup of the governing board, have also cropped up.

The proposals don’t often agree on exactly what is wrong with the system or how to address those issues, but the number of proposals put forth and their proximity hints that administrators, faculty members, and students feel frustrated by the current structure and that fundamental reform of the system could be on the horizon. Whether or not that is what the system needs is another question.

“It can’t be a coincidence that all of these proposals are coming about at a time when the system is under immense financial pressure,” said Patrick Callan, former president of the independent, nonprofit National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in California.

One University?

The University of California’s governance structure is fairly distinct among higher education institutions. While many state university systems exist, the University of California is technically one 10-campus institution. Unlike other systems, whose institutions have different missions and serve different populations, the UC campuses technically have the same mission -- teaching the state's best students and conducting world-class research. The California State University system has the same structure (though a different mission).

The UC-System campuses are governed by a single 26-member Board of Regents, composed mostly of political appointees and statewide elected officials. Those regents hold ultimate authority for the 10 campuses and are responsible for setting tuition rates, selecting campus and system administrators, representing the campuses in state government, and coordinating systemwide planning, among other things.

Administrators say that when the bulk of the system’s revenues came from the state, that setup made sense. A unified system had significantly more political leverage than 10 individual universities, especially in a state with hundreds of higher education institutions. But as the institutions’ budgets have evolved and state support has waned, administrators say, that model may not be as appropriate. Most institutional revenues, including tuition, research grants, corporate partnerships, and philanthropy are now generated by individual campuses, not the system.

Sharing the Power

Most of the recent proposals are rooted in the fact that the system’s budget model has been fundamentally altered as a result of state cuts over the past three years and that a return to the previous model is unlikely.

In a paper published by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC-Berkeley, outgoing Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, along with several Berkeley vice chancellors and C. Judson King, the center’s director and former provost of the UC system, wrote that each campus needs its own board to help it generate new revenues, such as private philanthropy, out-of-state tuition, and corporate partnerships. “These kinds of things have to be done at the campus level, and they are going to require flexibility,” King said. “There are going to be different opportunities at different campuses that depend on where they are and the industry and philanthropy in the area.”

They propose a system in which each campus has its own governing board with delegated authority while ultimate authority still rests with the Board of Regents, a structure similar to systems in North Carolina and Florida.

Under the plan, the Board of Regents would still be responsible for submitting a system budget, coordinating system-level planning, setting in-state undergraduate tuition, and selecting the system president, and that board would still hold fiduciary responsibility for the system. Campus boards would be responsible for campus budgets, setting tuition rates for out-of-state undergraduates and graduate students, determining caps on how many of those students are admitted, approving construction projects, and managing the institution’s endowment, among other things.

Under the current governance structure, King said, the Board of Regents doesn’t have the necessary expertise about each campus to judge whether a proposal is a good one or not. Regents are often concerned with state issues, which is needed, he said, but more understanding of local and campus issues might help campuses address revenue-generation challenges.

The current setup does not prohibit most of the revenue-generation measures that King and others say will be important over the next few years. The UC campuses have already created such revenue-generating programs, launched major fund-raising campaigns, and sought corporate partnerships. But the current setup leaves it up to campus administrators to make decisions without the kind of governance oversight found at most institutions. King said local boards would get more people involved in that process and potentially generate new ideas.

The proposal has been met with mixed response. UC-system President Mark Yudof said in a statement that he did not support the proposal as written. Robert Anderson, chairman of the systemwide Academic Senate, said that while there are problems with how the system is governed, he didn’t see how the proposal would address them.

Anderson said the proposal could even exacerbate some of the system’s problems, such as the decline of state funding. “I think it would lead each campus to lobby individually the legislature and governor, which would be detrimental to the system as a whole,” he said. “Berkeley by itself can only take a relatively modest number of students. I think taxpayers of California are more inclined to support a system than support a single campus where their own students might not attend.”

The proposal floated by UC-San Francisco’s chancellor, Susan Desmond-Hellmann, is similar to the one put forth by King and his co-authors in that it would grant the San Francisco campus more autonomy from the system. It would create a board of directors for the campus to focus on its unique needs and free it from obligations to pay into the central administration. The regents agreed to review the proposal, and appointed a committee to study it and make recommendations in July.

Callan said the system’s problem is not necessarily that it concentrates too much authority at the system level, but that the system’s governance has not been diligent enough in coordinating what campuses should and should not do. “The university really overshot, letting campuses grow by their own operations,” he said. He said letting each campus pursue its own goals committed the system to too many duplicated programs, which is now jeopardizing the quality of the system as a whole as revenues constricted. He said he would like to see better coordination and differentiation among the institutions.

“The idea was for each campus to have an array of quality programs, not for every campus to be a comprehensive university,” Callan said. “Not every place can be Berkeley and UCLA.”

Others have argued for increasing student representation on the Board of Regents, since tuition now makes up a larger share of the system's budget than state appropriations. Currently two students sit on the board, one voting member and one designee, who becomes a full voting member next year. Anderson said he personally supports the idea of increasing student representation on the board, but said the Academic Senate has not weighed in on the issue.

Dangers of Independence

The tightrope of pushing any form of campus independence from a system is a tough one to walk. Recent bids for autonomy from governing systems by administrators at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Oregon did not go over well with state politicians and the general public. While many such efforts have cost top administrators their jobs, supporters have argued that those administrators were right in pushing for independence. Flagships like Madison are harmed by being a part of system, they argue.

But the California situation is somewhat different. In Wisconsin and Oregon, the state’s flagship research universities were trying to break from a system that included institutions with a range of missions. But since the University of California is technically one multicampus university rather than a system of universities, that argument doesn’t really matter. “Each institution can’t really claim that its unique mission is somehow undermined by being a part of the system,” Callan said.

Previous efforts to differentiate the UC campuses have also been met with sharp resistance. Last May, when campus administrators proposed setting different tuition rates for the different campuses, the board rejected the idea, saying it could hurt the reputation of individual campuses.  

The Berkeley proposal has already been called an effort to raise tuition and advance the Berkeley, San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles campuses at the expense of the rest of the system. An editorial in The Los Angeles Times criticized the idea, saying that it would drive up tuition at those campuses while "other campuses with less star power would be left to fend for themselves, and the inequities among campuses would probably grow." King rejected those characterizations. “One of the main selling points is that all boats can rise,” he said. “All the campuses have opportunities to do it in different ways, depending on their situations.”

He also said their proposal is rooted in keeping the unified character of the 10-campus university intact.

But King said the proposal is getting traction, though any kind of change would take place over a long period of time. Part of that traction is a result of the desire to do something in the face of financial struggles. “If we weren’t faced with this level of financial difficulty, this idea probably would have not come to this level of consideration,” he said. “I think it did take something to show us that there may well be ways of evolving the system to something better.”

King predicted that the system will likely establish campus boards, or create some other form of devolved responsibility, within five years because university finances will be increasingly campus-based.

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