Monday, June 08, 2009

More California Craziness

I've almost grown accustomed to the idea that any news out of Sacramento will be bad news. The current legislature and the current governor make that almost a given. That said, I still have to admit that the latest bit of insanity coming from the legislature really set me back on my heels: the legislature wants a constitutional amendment removing all autonomy from the University of California system and vesting all control in (brace yourselves) the state legislature.

From Peter Shrag's excellent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times:

...a bipartisan group led by state Sens. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) and Roy Ashburn (R-Bakersfield) is at it again. Playing to voters upset at some of UC's slippery and costly executive compensation packages, they propose to eliminate UC's historic autonomy and subject the world's greatest public university to the control of the Legislature, a body hardly famous for its own fiscal responsibility.

Given UC's recent penchant for cozy finagling of executive compensation and perks and its often opaque budgeting practices, some cage-rattling may be in order. It's not surprising that people are upset that new chancellors at UC San Francisco and UC Davis are going to receive salaries of more than $400,000 at a moment when undergraduate fees are about to go up again, this time by 9.3%.

But the constitutional amendment being proposed by the three state senators and their Assembly partners -- which wouldn't just interfere with the university's constitutional autonomy but would end it -- could make past examples of interference look benign.

Those past examples Mr. Shrag refers to includes the shameful imposition of a loyalty oath promulgated by the state legislature's "Un-American Activities" committees during the McCarthy era and for a period thereafter. Brilliant educators and researchers were driven out of the state by that oath and the hounding that accompanied it. Most were targeted not because they were Communists but because they were liberals. It took decades to overcome the damage to our world-class university system from that outrageous interference. And now, the legislature that can't even pass a budget, one of its most important responsibilities, wants to try its hand at running the state's universities. That would be devastating, even more devastating than the loyalty oath episode.

One thing that makes UC special is that it has been able to balance academic distinction with its democratic mission and public responsibility. If the Legislature ever got formal control, there'd be no telling what mischief -- in hiring, in curriculum, in setting research priorities, in admissions preferences -- the currents of political fashion could bring.

Fortunately, the reputation of the state legislature is at an all time low and the California electorate will probably defeat any proposition calling for such a constitutional amendment if only because it is being proposed by the legislature. The recent special election which rejected the budget proposals put to them to approve because the legislators couldn't do the job is evidence of that.

Maybe legislators ought to try doing their own constitutionally mandated jobs before trying to take on another.




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