Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano bid goodbye to Washington Friday, fleeing the federal government gridlock to become president of the University of California. But running one of the world’s leading public research university systems may not feel so far removed from the dysfunction she’s leaving behind.
Public research universities across the country are in crisis. Dwindling government funds and rising costs have left states scrambling to maintain quality, while finding ways to increase revenue and cut budgets. Despite prestigious schools like UCLA and Berkley, the UC system is among the most affected. With a $24 billion budget spread across 10 campuses, more than 220,000 students and 191,000 faculty and staff, it is one of the largest state systems and one of the most expensive to run. Finding more money will be the new president’s priority.
Napolitano, the first woman to lead the University of California, will have several options for fixing its fiscal problems. She can ask the state — which already contributes 11% of the system’s budget — for more money, hike tuition, cut costs, or raise more money from philanthropists and alumni. Getting further state funds will prove challenging, if not impossible. California’s budget is in dire shape and taxpayers already chipped in through a November ballot initiative that helped the system avoid $1 billion in cuts. But that is far from enough “to keep the university afloat,” says Robert Powell, a chemical engineering professor at UC Davis and a faculty representative to the University of California Board of Regents.
Meanwhile new initiatives meant to strengthen the system have met with resistance. A recent push from the Board of Regents to offer online courses for credit to raise tuition from students outside the university system was opposed by some faculty who believed it would weaken the university’s brand. It has failed to recruit a high number of paying students. And in 2009, during another budget crisis, UC Irvine launched a law school even though the system already had four. “I’ve never heard anyone say there are not enough lawyers in California,” said Pat Callan, the President of the Higher Education Policy Institute who has worked in higher education in the state.
Relying on students to shoulder the costs may not be an option. The decline in state funding has already forced students to take on a larger share of their education costs. In 1990, according to the university’s website, the state funded 78% of the cost of education per UC student. Now that figure stands at 39%. Raising tuition, which is about $13,000 for California students and around $36,000 for those from out of state, would be deeply unpopular. Outgoing president Mark Yudof has raised tuition several times,nearly doubling it since he took the job in 2008.
If the balance sheet weren’t daunting enough, Napolitano, a lawyer without an academic background, will also arrive at the job as an outsider, which could cause friction among tradition-minded faculty and administrators. But her experience as the governor of Arizona and the leader of a major federal agency will help her face the budgetary and bureaucratic challenges facing the president of any major university system, says Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana who now runs Purdue University.
Those problems, Daniels says, are “more familiar for someone who has been dealing with financial problems regularly in business or elected office as she and I did.” He says the increase in the number of former governors appointed to lead universities is “not an accident…Money was easy in higher education for a long time. Financial stewardship was not as important as keeping everybody happy and [they didn’t] have to make difficult choices among disciplines or competing priorities on the campus. Governors do that all the time.”