Los Angeles Times

Constituti­on lets UC call its own shots

- JOHN MYERS john.myers@latimes.com

Fans of the University of California often tout the 10-campus system as being in a class by itself, first among peers in offering a quality education.

Recent events, though, offer a reminder of another unique aspect of the UC system: its legal independen­ce, which is so powerful that in many cases university leaders can simply thumb their noses at the governor and the Legislatur­e. It’s the kind of freedom that may thwart any effort at reprimand after last week’s stinging state audit alleging hidden money and high salaries in the office of UC President Janet Napolitano.

And it’s a freedom the university has enjoyed since California’s current state Constituti­on was ratified in 1879. The document’s drafters worried about protecting UC from the politics of the day.

“Political prejudices and conspiraci­es creep into the institutio­n and poison its best blood,” said Jacob Freud, a San Francisco delegate, during debate at the 1879 constituti­onal convention.

The official record offers no hint of dissent. In fact, delegates haggled over mandating the study of agricultur­e (they didn’t) more than they debated whether to give the University of California free reign.

The California State University system, in contrast, is very much a state government subsidiary. That asymmetry between the two systems means that bills introduced in the Legislatur­e can “require” the Cal State Board of Trustees to do something but can do no more than make a “request” for the UC Board of Regents to do the same.

Two efforts over the last decade to remove UC’s autonomy failed at the state Capitol, stymied by the university’s legislativ­e supporters. Both attempts were sparked by anger over efforts to raise tuition even while other budgetbala­ncing ideas were ignored. The 2009 legislativ­e proposal came on the heels of $400,000 salaries awarded to chancellor­s at UC San Francisco and UC Davis.

“It behooves us, and ultimately the voters, to revisit the concentrat­ed power and autonomy of the UC Board of Regents, which appears to be out of touch with average working-class families,” said state Sen. Ricardo Lara (DBell Gardens) in 2014 when introducin­g his constituti­onal amendment to strip UC of its independen­ce.

When Lara’s first effort failed, he pivoted to focusing only on UC’s regents. For generation­s, they’ve been appointed to 12-year terms by the governor, subject to confirmati­on by the state Senate. And they can be reappointe­d as many times as governors choose. Of the current regents, four have served one than more term. Sherry Lansing, the former chairwoman of Paramount Pictures, has served continuous­ly since 1999. Lara’s proposal would have instead capped lifetime service at 16 years, and only then if the regent was reconfirme­d by the Senate every four years. By last summer, that proposal also had fizzled.

(A curious footnote to history is that accountabi­lity was an issue from the beginning. In the 1879 constituti­onal revision, one delegate floated the idea of UC regents being elected by voters during statewide elections.)

A national review shows just six states have university systems with some form of independen­ce from elected officials. Only Michigan and Minnesota give their flagship schools anything close to the freedom afforded UC.

Lawmakers make decisions about state funding, but the rest is up to UC’s regents and president. Certainly the university isn’t immune to politics; in government, all decisions have a political element of some sort. The question is whether voters — who alone have the power to revise the state Constituti­on — would ever be willing to rethink the status quo. If not, UC’s substantia­l power will remain safely guarded by the words written 138 years ago.

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