SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – The University of California president’s office had to know state lawmakers would take a stern look at how the autonomous office manages its budget, after a recent and scathing state audit found $175 million in hidden surplus while tuition at UC schools continues to rise. The stern look may come in the form of a constitutional amendment that strips the office of much of its power.
On Tuesday, state Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, introduced an amendment to the state Constitution that, if enacted, will strip power from the UC Office of the President and place limits on the budgetary autonomy it has enjoyed since 1976.
Senate Constitutional Amendment 14 (SCA 14) intends to directly fund the office’s budget, addressing a key issue raised by auditors. Auditors found the office’s budget is intentionally misleading and vague, efforts they believed were manipulative and allowed the office to stockpile money off the books while still requesting increased funds from the state and raising students’ tuition.
“The recent report from the state auditor makes it clear that change is needed within the system,” Hernandez said in a statement. “We need more accountability from the Office of the President and new perspectives on the Board of Regents. We owe it to our students and their hard-working families to fight for necessary changes within our publicly funded higher education system.”
In addition to reallocating funding responsibility, SCA 14 offers significant change to the makeup of the powerful Board of Regents. The measure would add more faculty, student and staff representation to the board and give the chancellor of the community colleges a seat.
The proposed constitutional amendment also makes changes to term limits, reducing appointed members’ terms from 12 years to 4, with a maximum of three terms. Further weakening the office, the UC president would become a non-voting regent.
Former Assembly Speaker and current UC Regent John Perez said concerns about budget practices should be addressed by regents rather than legislators.
“The level of depth that’s required to right-size this and to deal with the complexity is appropriately, both constitutionally and functionally, with this board,” he said at the regents’ meeting last week.
Past efforts to increase accountability have failed to garner the necessary supermajority support within the Legislature. Adding to the difficulty, voters would also need to sign off on the amendment at the ballot box.
Hernandez’s measure joins efforts by the state Assembly to improve oversight by the state and address issues raised by auditors. Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, vowed earlier this month to introduce legislation making it a crime to interfere with a state audit.
“The University of California is a world-class university system,” Muratsuchi said in a May 9 statement. “I want the UC to continue to be a national and global leader in education and research. To do so, the Legislature should exercise proper legislative oversight to make sure that the UC is spending state dollars properly. Without good information, we cannot ensure we are meeting the needs of Californians.”
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, a member of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education, called for UC President Janet Napolitano to resign following the audit results.
“Too many families are struggling to give their children better lives. Needlessly raising fees while there are secret pots of money and a bloated bureaucracy that should be cut is ridiculous. Rescind the fees and give middle class families a break,” Quirk-Silva said earlier this month.
Beyond the audit findings, the Legislature has for years sought greater accountability from the UC system. When last amended in 1976, California’s population was about 20 million people and annual tuition for in-state students was $630. Today, the state has 40 million residents and annual tuition for Californians is $13,500.
“California has grown and changed since 1976,” Hernandez said. “It is only natural that we have a conversation about how the University of California’s governance can best reflect and adapt to those changes.”
Historically, the system’s autonomy has been touted as a major reason why the University of California is a world leader in education and research.