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The case for more UC autonomy

May 14, 2012|By C. Judson King, Robert J. Birgeneau and John Wilton
  • Students walk through Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus. To deal with steep funding cuts by the state, administrators recently wrote a proposal to give each UC school more autonomy.
Students walk through Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus. To deal with… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

The Times’ April 30 editorial, "The danger of UC autonomy," which challenges our proposal for modernizing University of California governance, deserves a response.

First, the editorial predicts that allowing each campus more autonomy would risk turning highly sought-after schools such as UC Berkeley and UCLA into institutions that serve most wealthy students, while qualified middle-class applicants would be drawn to other, less competitive UC schools. The editorial doesn’t mention the recently announced Middle Class Access Plan for Berkeley, whereby no UC Berkeley student from a family in the $80,000 to $140,000 household income range would pay more than 15% of family income for tuition, books and living expenses. We do seek and value affordable access for the middle class, as evidenced by this pioneering program.

You indicate that the report does not “provide evidence that the current system has worked poorly or explain in what way local freedom would fix any problems.” Our proposal seeks to address several daunting challenges, including an unprecedented decline in state funding for the UC system and the concomitant need to develop other revenue sources in support of the university’s public mission. These other sources include partnerships with the private sector, universities and the other sectors of public higher education; issue-specific fundraising; increased competitiveness to win grants and contracts; and entrepreneurial activities such as online education. Each of these is highly specific to individual campuses.

What the schools would gain from the creation of campus boards by the UC regents is the flexibility and agility to develop these new funding sources. Knowledge of each school’s unique needs and circumstances is crucial, and campus boards fill that role. They will allow us to maintain and strengthen activities that are core to each campus, such as providing financial aid to a greater number of our students using funds obtained at the local level, thereby enabling initiatives like the Middle Class Access Program at UC Berkeley.

Each campus, not just UC Berkeley and UCLA, would benefit immensely under our local board system. It will enable all schools to increase financial and other support and also forge effective partnerships of the sorts defined above in their own areas and through their own strengths. This is not a zero-sum game -- far from it. All campuses can and will benefit from this change, giving them greater initiative in boosting non-state funding.

We stated clearly in our report that, upon recommendation of the UC system president, the regents would establish “tuition or allowable ranges (upper and lower limits) of tuition” for in-state undergraduates. We do not suggest removing the responsibility for setting tuition for California undergraduates from the regents, nor is our approach of local boards even predicated on undergraduate tuition for state residents being variable across UC campuses. Whether resident undergraduate tuition would vary between campuses would remain a matter for the regents, as it is now.

Finally, it isn’t true that campuses such as UC Berkeley and UCLA would accept fewer Californians, who pay in-state tuition. (The Times ran a correction acknowledging its error.) We leave with the president and the regents the role of assigning campuses enrollment targets for undergraduate Californians, so as to assure adherence to the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education.

The Times’ focus on these issues reveals how much education we have to do to inform the public about the reality of the challenges we face and the type of bold actions we must take to sustain the UC system’s stellar reputation and adapt to new circumstances. We are pleased our efforts have sparked a dialogue on these important issues that will impact California both now and decades into the future.


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C. Judson King is director of UC Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education, Robert J. Birgeneau is the university's chancellor and John Wilton is vice chancellor for administration and finance.

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