UC system's present, and how past affected it
By Lou Fancher
At a Feb. 5 gathering, UC President Janet Napolitano and President Emeritus Mark Yudof were asked their vision of the University of California system's primary mission. Their answers were similar, but not the same.
Said Napolitano: The primary task of the UC system is remaining accessible and affordable to a vast, diverse student body and devoting adequate resources to flagship research centers.
Yudof's take on the same question: The primary job of higher education at California's 10-campus system is teaching students how to learn.
These, and many other answers and observations, came during a Commonwealth Club event bringing together Napolitano and Yudof for a 60-minute discussion about the future of higher education, moderated by Joe Epstein. Nearly 200 people attended.
Assertive, lacing their data-heavy replies with humor, Napolitano and Yudof addressed issues including rising tuition, changing state demographics, decreased public funding, concerns over sexual assaults, hate crimes and other matters in the public's focus.
Much of the talk circled around tuition, starting with a discussion of the recent announcement that Napolitano and Gov. Jerry Brown had formed a "committee of two" to wrestle over state funding and UC system financing.
Napolitano said that her job as UC president meant getting as much money out of the Legislature for the university as possible. "It's incumbent on me to say 'Look, we have the world's best public university right here, we need to fight to keep it that way.'"
Napolitano said public investment -- the state's contribution -- in higher education has dropped from $18,000 per student in 1990-91 to $8,000 per student in 2015.
"At what point should the state, on behalf of the public, play a larger part?" she asked, a point she emphasized repeatedly throughout the conversation.
Napolitano is aiming for tuition increases capped at 5 percent, but warned the university cannot "keep raising them ad infinitum" because student enrollment, courses offered and quality of research would be heavily impacted.
Yudof is a professor of law at UC Berkeley, having stepped down as UC president in 2013 (Napolitano succeeded him later that year).
Yudof said accessibility is another issue requiring adaptability as California's population demographics shift.
"We educated the Caucasian folks and now that the state has a substantial population of African Americans and Hispanics, we owe it to them even more, to provide the same avenue," he said. He said the gains from eliminating positive affirmative action weren't enough to offset the losses.
Napolitano said Latinos entering the university have outpaced white students for the first time in its history.
Forty-two percent of entering students are first-generation students. Separately, a different 42 percent of entering students come from families earning $80,000 or less.
Yudof said budget cuts during his tenure came at the wrong time, and that he never liked Proposition 209, which prohibits state institutions from considering race (among other factors) for admission.
The number of out-of-state and international students (about 14 percent across the system, but nearly double that figure at UC Berkeley and UCLA) concerns Napolitano, who said the system's first obligation is to serve Californians. But explaining the rationale for maintaining current admissions, she said one out-of-state student's supplemental tuition is enough to fund one in-state student, and has allowed in-state enrollment rates to remain level despite budget cuts.
Napolitano said she was delighted Obama put higher education in the State of the Union address. But if his ideas to convert two-year community colleges to 4-year programs and make them tuition free are simply a way for government to avoid paying for higher education, she said, "Then I think we're fooling ourselves."
Napolitano and Yudof agreed that subsidizing student athletes with scholarships will continue. Yudof called the business of college athletics "an arms race," and Napolitano said a draft policy to have athletic staff compensation reliant on a team's academic standing was recently tabled as "too blunt." In the meantime, she said a report that the UC Berkeley's football team had the lowest graduation rates in the NCAA had Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and his team doing "yeoman's work to right that ship."
Moderator Epstein asked if becoming a signatory of a United Nations-supported "Principles for Responsible investment" policy would become a political football. Napolitano said the university has a fiduciary duty to manage assets, but that looking at factors beyond the rate of return -- for example, environmental and socially responsible investments supported by the U.N. policy -- was "entirely right."
In response to an audience question about a swastika drawn on a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis after a student dispute about boycotting Israel, Yudof said stopping destructive language without stepping on First-Amendment rights is something the adult community -- not just students -- have failed to deal with in an inadequate way.
Added Napolitano, "Our students should feel safe," she said. "(We need to show) that they are in an environment of inclusion. We should be educating students there are differing points of view."