UC of FU
It has long been an article of faith for me that the University of California is run by scoundrels, either greedy or stupid or both. Some of you, I realize, have not been following this blog long enough to know that this is the succinct version of a theme I’ve been harping on for some time — start here, then here, then peruse anything on this page — but if you want it in a sentence, that’s the long and short of it. To be clear: I am talking about the bloodsucking parasites at the top, people like the regents and the UC president, Mark Yudof, people who are appointed to their positions by someone like Governor Arnold — who is ideologically opposed to the idea of a public university — and their cronies who they appoint to draw gigantic salaries to do the job of cutting the salaries of people that actually do the actual work.
The people who do actual work at the university, by contrast, are the salt of the earth, some of the most brilliant and dedicated human beings I expect to meet in my life. I’m a (very low-level) member of that club, so I’m not exactly unbiased, but my admiration for the vocation is the reason I’m part of it (despite the chance of actually achieving gainful employment being somewhere between really bad and negligible). And by the way, next time you hear anyone ragging on the American college student for being lazy or selfish, tell them Aaron Bady says to go to hell. I’ve spent a lot of time in the classroom over the last few years, and I’ve come to take for granted that my students will turn out to be pretty amazing human beings, and it’s an honor and a privilege to be their teacher.
Needed to get that out of the way. Feel free to disagree with me, or even to suggest that being a university employee, I’m just talking about how great university employees are and badmouthing the bosses like disgruntled labor since time immemorial. I won’t argue. I’m not trying to convince you. I’m just laying my cards on the table.
Then read this and tell me I’m not right. The story was first broken by the SF Chronicle but since it was ably summarized and commentated by Chris Newfield, I’ll hand you over to him in a second. But first, it would be good to have in mind some context: all university employees just had their pensions substantially cut. There are all sorts of reasons for why this is happening (starting with Sacramento’s bipartisan effort to drown the state in Grover Norquist’s bathtub and ending with the idiot scoundrels that run the UC’s finances; see this account). But the effect it has had on the people at the top is really telling: when a wave of cutbacks hits everyone, from top to bottom, the thirty-six richest people in the system lost their shit and threatened to sue.
Today’s San Francisco Chronicle headline reads, “Highest-paid UC execs demand millions in benefits.” This refers to a demand by 36 senior executives that the Regents authorize UC to “calculate [their] retirement benefits as a percentage of their entire salaries, instead of the federally instituted limit of $245,000. The difference would be significant for the more than 200 UC employees who currently earn more than $245,000.” The salaries and the payouts are explained in this graphic. A $400,000 salary with the cap yields a pension of about $184,000 a year, but is bumped to $300,000 a year without….
The symbolism of the pension spike is way beyond the actual money: UC’s top officials, the ones who set the policies that affect the state, display selfish greed, total oblivion to the public mission, and a tight focus on lining their already bulging pockets. It confirms the majority suspicion that universities like UC care much more about the “bottom line” than about education (Question 6). People don’t see anything in this kind of effort that universities are supposed to be about. There is in the background a sense of the university’s abandonment of the state’s suffering middle class, and of course nothing for the poor who still want to send their kids to college. Tuition has tripled over the decade, debt goes up incessantly, public pensions are under attack exactly because of $300,000 payouts, thousands of students show up to UC every quarter with nothing but borrowed petty cash, and yet what they see senior executives spending their time on is maximizing their personal take…
You can read the letter of the 36 to judge for yourself whether they have a legal case. My own reading is that their real argument is what they term the “ethical” one: in 1999 the Regents said they would remove the cap on salary eligible for pension accural if the IRS allowed it, people decided to stay at UC for that reason, the IRS granted the request, and now they are owed extra back pension. President Yudof, in contrast, defines UC’s position as saying that the 1999 resolution was never implemented and the cap on the contribution level was not eliminated. Both of these statements seem to be factually true. The other argument of the 36 is that UC needs to pay market-level salaries and benefits, and this will only happen if UC removes the cap.
This latter argument is factually false. UC has been proving for years that it doesn’t has to pay market rates, and does so by paying sub-market wages to most of its faculty and staff. More importantly, this argument displays an ignorance about the status of a public university that drives many people nuts. The 36 want market-level salaries, i.e., a top-end salary at a wealthy private-sector institution. They at the same time want public-sector defined-benefit pensions, which historically developed to protect employees who made much less than their private-sector counterparts. Public-sector pensions were never meant to support private-sector executive lifestyles. The public has absolutely no obligation to pay for them. Hence the logic of the $245,000 cap.
There’s a deeper stupidity in all this, which is the energy of this letter on behalf of a tiny group of executives that they have never directed at political and business leaders who’ve let the University go to hell. They threaten to depose former Regents and UC Presidents. When did they ever threaten the Schwarzenegger administration during their endless rounds of fee hikes and general fund cuts? The 36 are brilliant, passionate advocates for themselves. With one known exception they have done no public advocacy for the university. All 36 signers are non-instructional executives, and at least half are non-academic, but this is no excuse. For much of the public, a University still stands for collective betterment, mutual development, enlightenment, progress for all, solidarity, and some kind of common life of knowledge. The wage and benefit inequalities deepened by this pension spike suggest an executive class that is comfortable with the inequalities that are damaging millions of individual lives and the future of the state as a whole. When they stand for the university, the university stands for nothing.
Though it’s yet to be seen what kind of governor Jerry Brown will be on education, he says the right things here. If you’re not a Californian, comfort yourself with the knowledge that something very much like this is happening, will happen, or has happened to the public universities near wherever you are.