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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Opinion: Can UC be great and public at the same time?

Every few years, the question comes back: Can the University of California continue to compete with the world's best research universities - and often outrank them - but, as a tax-supported institution, cope with the kind of political forces and demands that rarely constrain the privates?

Today, in response to the latest uproar about administrative compensation, President Robert Dynes and other UC officials will go before the Senate Education Committee to explain and apologize. The anger in Sacramento may be as much about administrative arrogance and the surreptitious way perks were handed out to some UC executives as it is about the sums involved.

The tsoris was sparked by a month of overheated pieces in the San Francisco Chronicle that charged that UC had "quietly" distributed $871 million in "bonuses, moving allowances, administrative stipends and other types of cash compensation in addition to salaries and overtime." Much of the $871 million was the $449 million medical school professors earned in fees from private practice in university hospitals - virtually all of UC's million-dollar earners are docs; two are coaches. Another $151 million was for faculty teaching and research beyond ordinary loads. Only $7 million, according to UC, went to senior administrators.

Still, as Dynes said in an interview last week, the stories "had a germ of truth" and maybe a bit more. The university, he said, had been "less than totally open." In the effort to compete with private universities that have far more money to spend per student and are already far wealthier than the publics, "we've made mistakes."

The mistakes included long paid leaves for some departing administrators. One UC Davis administrator, who was moved out of her job and threatened to sue for racial discrimination, is still being paid $205,000 plus benefits while the university tries to find her a suitable job.

The university, according to a national survey, pays its senior administrators less than their counterparts get elsewhere, but total compensation - pensions, health benefits, sabbatical pay - is roughly on a par. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2004 five university presidents earned more than $1 million a year; there are now seven.

In 2004, the highest compensated public university presidents were Mary Sue Coleman of the University of Michigan system ($724,604); David P. Roselle of the University of Delaware ($720,522); Mark G. Yudof of the University of Texas system ($693,677); and Carl V. Patton of Georgia State University ($688,406). No UC administrator makes anywhere near that.

Are those people worth what they're getting? It's no secret that corporate culture has infested higher education. And as trustees at one university raise compensation, others take notice.

Dynes says that's particularly crucial when UC is trying to bring someone in from the outside. The same, of course, is true for star faculty, many of whom teach very little.

Compensation scandals aren't new at UC. The uproar over retiring President David Gardner's pension in 1992 might never have occurred if tight budgets hadn't forced cancellation of some UC classes and rising student fees.

Like previous compensation problems, the latest episode isn't likely to raise the really tough questions about how the university is organized, whether it needs all those administrators and whether UC, in order to accommodate more students - as in the new campus at Merced - should be constantly trying to replicate research universities like Berkeley, UCLA and San Diego.

Dynes says there is differentiation, with different campuses taking advantage of their particular expertise and resources. Yet no other university system has UC's ambitions or its enormous scope. As a great public research university, it is unique.

The advantages are obvious. UC's assets and prestige have been decisive in California's economic and high-tech growth. They'll be even more crucial in the coming years.

But the disclosures about large pension and severance payouts also have raised questions, even in the Legislature, about whether UC ought not be more focused on serving undergraduates - on being just good and not necessarily the best. Some of the Legislature's newer people seem unaware of the difficult world in which UC has to operate.

Some are horrified by the Chronicle's disclosures. Many lower-level UC employees are incensed. The university is promising to be more transparent in its compensation practices, as it should.

It will compile annual public reports on the pay and perks of hundreds of senior executives, and it promises more active engagement by the regents than they've exercised in the past. Two weeks from today, board chairman Gerald Parsky will testify and try to reinforce that point.

The state's higher education system badly needs an independent agency to ask fundamental questions. CPEC, the California Postsecondary Education Commission, used to fulfill some of those functions, but in its present underfunded, understaffed state, it can't do that. It either has to be beefed up or replaced. Either way, however, if California wants the power and prestige of a great university, it has to pay for it.

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