On the University of California, V: Gutting Accountability?

BY HANK REICHMAN

This is the fifth in a series of posts on issues in the University of California (UC) system, the nation’s premier public research institution. Previous posts in the series may be found here, here, here and here

At a time when there is growing concern about governing board overreach, the University of California Board of Regents is set to consider proposals that some charge will hand over too much power to system administrators and limit the board’s ability to enforce accountability and stifle dissent among its members.  In a piece published online a week ago, Velma Montoya, who served as a UC regent from 1994 to 2005, charged that “Proposed changes in the governance of the University of California System would empower its president, former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, with greatly enhanced autonomy by hamstringing the principal check on her power, the Regents.”

The proposals were presented as a discussion item to the regents’ Committee on Governance in May and are likely to be voted on when the board meets in two weeks.  According to the document presented at the May meeting, the proposals would

restructure how the Board of Regents operates in order to become a more efficient and strategic body. The proposed changes include the structure of its committees, how meetings are scheduled and conducted, and corresponding amendments to the Regents Bylaws. Guiding principles include having fewer committees with broader authority, conducting concurrent meetings so that committees can engage in in-depth discussions of major issues facing the University and focus on strategic, rather than operational, matters, and ensuring that the Board operates in an accountable and transparent manner. The proposed changes also provide an opportunity to comprehensively review and update all of the University’s governing documents (Bylaws, Standing Orders, and Regents Policies) for the first time since 1969 to ensure that they conform to the new structure, are current, and reflect best practices in governance.

In Montoya’s view, however, these changes “would diminish the power of the Regents relative to UC President Janet Napolitano’s administration.  Napolitano already has demonstrated a reluctance to consult the Academic Senate on issues such as pension reform and disciplining UC Davis Chancellor Katehi,” she noted, “and, according to Regent Rodney Davis, failed to inform Regents of Katehi’s response to Napolitano’s allegations.”

One major change would rescind the longstanding authority of an individual Regent to place any item on the Regents’ meeting agenda.  This, Montoya suggests, would limit the ability of individual regents to question administrative decisions and encourage passive acceptance of administrative decisions and priorities.  A bigger change would reduce the number of Standing Committees from ten to six.  Moreover, current practice is similar to that in the California State University (CSU) system, where all trustees sit around the table while the various Committees meet, with any board member free to contribute to any Committee.   In the new system Committees would meet concurrently on the first day of the regular two-day meeting.  The second day would include a plenary Board session.

Montoya wonders how “budget-conscious California newspapers that normally send only one reporter to Regents’ meetings could cover back-to-back Committee meetings.”  She worries that the “practice would dramatically curtail the ability of the press to inform the public and maintain the Regents’ obligation of transparency.”

The new committee structure would create a powerful Governance and Compensation Committee, which would function as a kind of super-committee or executive committee for the Board as a whole.  The Committee would consist of the President of the Board (the California Governor), the Chair of the Board, the UC President, and the Chairs of the Board’s Standing Committees.  It would be empowered (see pages 9-10) to appoint Regents to Board Committees and appoint all University senior leaders – presumably including all campus Chancellors and any successor UC President, in Montoya’s words “enabling some Regents and the UC President to be more powerful than others.”  Another proposed change would delegate to a majority of this Committee the power to dismiss any Regent for noncompliance with University laws, regulations and policies.   Montoya believes that this “change could have a chilling effect on an individual Regent’s behaviors, providing the opportunity for mischief by Regents appointed by Governors from different political parties.”

I’m not sure what I think about these proposals myself.  To my knowledge the Council of University of California Faculty Associations (CUCFA), an AAUP partner organization, has yet to take a position on them.  My own experience with the CSU Board of Trustees suggests that too often governing boards are far too willing to go along with — and far too timid to raise questions about — decisions by university administrators — at least before it’s too late to avoid problems.  At the same time, however, when boards do intervene against administrators it is too frequently for the wrong reasons.  Certainly one would not like to see at UC the kind of overreach in which governing boards at the universities of Virginia, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Missouri have engaged, thereby undermining academic freedom and shared governance.

Tellingly, one reform NOT being considered is the addition of voting faculty representatives to the board.  Currently, the CSU Board of Trustees includes one voting faculty trustee, appointed for a two-year term by the governor from a list of at least two nominees provided by the system academic senate.  But while the current Chair and Vice-Chair of the UC Academic Senate serve as advisory “faculty representatives” to the Regents, no faculty member actually sits on the board as a voting member.  Perhaps increasing and improving communication with faculty might be a better way to address the Regents’ understandable concern with addressing “increasingly complex issues fundamental to public higher education such as finding sustainable sources of funding and maintaining accessibility.”

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