ARTICLE EXCERPTS: We can identify many of the threats to public higher education in the United States: political attacks on faculty by conservative politicians, systematic budget cuts, selling out academic programs to big-money donors.
Who would have thought that a major threat would come from a university’s own president?
Yet that’s the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from State Auditor Elaine Howle’s scalding report on the University of California Office of the President — and from the tepid, defensive, mail-it-in response to the report by UC President Janet Napolitano and Monica Lozano, the chair of the UC Regents, during a legislative hearing Tuesday (5-4-17). . .
Howle’s core findings certainly are discouraging. Her staff determined that Napolitano’s office, known as UCOP, maintained an undisclosed reserve reaching $175 million in 2015-16 — while seeking larger assessments from the system’s 10 campuses every year since 2011. The campus assessments provide about 90% of UCOP’s budget.
“In effect,” the report states, “the Office of the President received more funds than it needed each year, and it amassed millions of dollars in reserves that it spent with little or no oversight from the regents or the public.” A “significant portion” of the reserves, it adds, “consists of funds the campuses could have retained and spent for other purposes.”
While UCOP drained individual campus coffers and maintained what Howle suggests was a slush fund, the regents — evidently convinced that the system was fiscally on its knees — raised tuition 2.5% in January, the first tuition increase since 2011. Howle’s report intensifies pressure on the regents to roll back the increase, which is expected to bring in $88 million a year.
Howle documented how UCOP is not only overstaffed by comparison to other big public university systems, but overpaid, with salaries and benefits outstripping those of other state employees performing similar work. She found that the office’s financial record-keeping was so sloppy it didn’t even know how much money it had sloshing around. . . .
Complaints have been rising for years about the bloated ranks and pay of UC administrators, and Howle puts some meat on those bones. Over the six-year period of the audit, UCOP staff expanded by 11% — a bit more than total UC staff, and way more than the 6% increase in academic full-time staff equivalents. Most of the UCOP expansion took place at its Oakland headquarters, rather than at the campuses (where it also stations staff). The UCOP payroll has increased by 36% to $187 million in that time, about three times the pace of inflation.
UCOP is vastly richer in staff per enrollment than Howle’s benchmark systems. . . . (See Graph)
Napolitano argued that her office’s role is unique among public university systems to the extent it takes responsibilities off its member campus’ hands. . . — when Howle asked UCOP for documentation supporting the claim, it couldn’t dredge up any.
What may be Howle’s most telling finding pertains to how UCOP reacted to its audit. According to Howle, Napolitano’s deputies actively interfered with her staff’s work. For weeks they delayed the production of figures and documents. They maintained that she had no legal authority to ask for some material, until her agency’s lawyers met with UCOP’s lawyers and explained chapter-and-verse exactly how far-reaching Howle’s authority is.
An even bigger shock is Howle’s assertion that UCOP manipulated the results of surveys she had sent to the individual campuses about the utility of UCOP programs and policies, editing or ordering rewrites of campus responses typically to make UCOP look better. . . Napolitano’s explanation for the interference was transparently bogus. She said UCOP was concerned that the surveys had been sent to campus officials who weren’t in a position to answer them.
Howle, however, made crystal clear that UCOP went to extraordinary lengths to stand in her way. “I've been the auditor for 17 years,” she said at the hearing, “and in all that time I've never had a situation like this occur.” . . .
By Michael Hiltzik, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist