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Tone-deaf at UC

UC is rightly balking at granting additional retirement perks to about 200 highly paid administrators.

January 07, 2011

A group of highly paid executives at the University of California has adopted an unseemly attitude best described as "gimme, gimme." Although each of them already earns at least $245,000 a year, along with generous pension benefits, they're threatening to sue if the university, which has imposed hefty tuition increases on its students over the past two years, doesn't give them more.

The Board of Regents clearly intended, back in 1999, to give its highest-paid administrators a retirement boost by asking the Internal Revenue Service to lift a cap on pension benefits for those earning the biggest salaries. If the IRS agreed, the regents said, the president and two members of the board would come up with a plan for implementing the higher benefits.

The cap was lifted in 2007. Different year, different world. By then, the state's financial woes were beginning to put its public colleges in a stranglehold. Now, no one is implementing any plans that increase costs. Instead, the university has chopped course offerings, recruited more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition, raised in-state fees and reduced pension benefits for rank-and-file employees. UC is rightly balking at granting additional retirement perks to people who are sitting pretty with salaries of several hundred thousand per year and pensions of close to $100,000 a year once they retire after 15 years of service.

The affected executives had every reason to expect the increased pension, but many people these days are experiencing an unforeseen downsizing of their expectations in this era of shared sacrifice. Though only 36 UC executives signed the letter — including Judy Olian, dean of the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, and Mark Laret, CEO of UCSF Medical Center — the pension increase would accrue to about 200 UC administrators, costing the university more than $5 million a year. That's not a budget-buster, but the money would have to come from somewhere — probably students' pockets.

"We understand the current political sensitivities relating to pension benefits," the executives wrote. "But the regents have historically stood for doing what is right." We don't believe they do understand. Legislation has been introduced to take away some of UC's historic independence from state government. Those bills have been driven in part by concerns about excessive executive compensation, and the letter writers are providing the bills' sponsors with ample ammunition.

All around these executives, public employees are being laid off, furloughed or otherwise expected to get more done with less compensation; UC's students increasingly come from households in which one or both parents have lost a job. The letter writers are not the heads of profit-oriented corporations but of a public institution with a noble mission. Their tone-deafness shows that when it comes to doing the right thing, it's not the regents who are lacking.

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