The University of California made national headlines last week when its governing Board of Regents announced that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had been chosen to serve as the system’s next President, replacing Mark Yudof, who presided over precipitous tuition rises, fractious relations between campus communities and administrations, and a de facto move towards the privatisation of the country’s preeminent public university system.
There will undoubtedly be a debate about whether Napolitano makes sense as a pick, about whether her values and needs line up with those of the quarter million or so students who call UC home, about what her record in Arizona tells us about her commitment to public higher education, and about whether her tenure as Homeland Security secretary equips her to run a university system. This debate will probably play out on campuses, in state government, and in the state’s media.
But as pointed out in a Sacramento Bee editorial, the time for such a debate would logically have been when the Regents were still considering an array of candidates. And if that was too democratic for them, they could at least have offered a period for comment, debate, and critical examination prior to the vote on her confirmation, which is set to come in the coming week, just days after the announcement of her nomination.
The Bee puts it well:
“It is a little disappointing that the university community and the public have so little time to consider her record and for her to interact with university constituencies and the public in open forums before the regents make a decision.
“Can she explain to all Californians why UC is important to the social, political and economic vibrancy of the state? Can she inspire UC’s students and staff? Can she command the respect of the faculty?
“Such a public vetting of its finalists has not been the UC tradition, but it should be. Outgoing UC President Mark Yudof’s nomination was announced on a Thursday in March 2008 and regents approved his appointment the following Thursday”.
But transparency and accountability are values and characteristics that are very much alien to the UC Board of Regents. Undemocratic secrecy is written into the DNA of the Regents, who are appointed by the Governor on the basis of what can only be called patronage politics. The University’s governing body has no obligation to respond to the campus communities, and the defining feature of its members seems to be their great wealth, making them distinctly unrepresentative of the overwhelming majority of California’s citizens who have much riding on the success of their University.
Over the past decade, the Regents’ primary commitment has not been to the preservation of the public character of the University, to maintaining UC’s commitment to promoting equality and accessibility, and to using their time to lobby state government about the importance of UC’s public character and mission, but rather towards the slow but painful process of privatisation, whereby they have forced the burden for funding UC away from the public and onto individual students and their families.
Because their composition is unrepresentative and their elevation undemocratic, the Regents do not have to take responsibility for their actions. There are no consequences for the devastatingly-poor series of decisions that they’ve made. That they could preside so easily over the stealthy privatisation of what might be our state’s most important and world-renown institution suggests the degree to which the Regents are insulated from the demands of their community and the welfare of the state.
That they could announce the nominee—and individual who will lead ten campuses, three national laboratories, and five medical centres, at which over 400,000 people study and work—without a period of debate, consultation, and investigation smacks of arrogance and demonstrates the Regents’ apparent contempt for their constituents and for California.
I believe that the future of the University of California depends on the state of California’s willingness to embrace rational, wholesale political reform. And when that structural reform comes to the state, one of its targets should be the Board of Regents of its public university system.