University of California President Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor and director of Homeland Security under Barack Obama, showed off her political skill at a joint legislative oversight hearing last week. She was being “grilled” about a recent state audit alleging that her office — about the size of some small countries — held an “undisclosed” fund of $175 million even as it was significantly hiking tuition on UC students.
The scathing audit, which I wrote about for the Spectator last month, also accused the university of spending excessively on pay and benefit packages, producing “inconsistent and misleading” budget presentations and — most shocking to some legislators — interfering with the audit process. Napolitano was slick and apologetic, as she simultaneously denied the allegations and agreed to implement all 33 recommendations Auditor Elaine Howle made in the report.
Yet the hearing didn’t offer much confidence that legislators would dig in and fix the problem. One Republican Assemblyman emphasized the importance of the university system (well, duh) and then said that we’re “all on the same team: Team California.” Go team go. “When I look at this, I think, ‘Holy cow manure! I can’t believe this is happening,’” said a Democratic Assemblyman. Yes, these and other legislators offered a lot of great-for-TV statements, but few seemed up to the task of putting the unctuous Napolitano in the hot seat.
Napolitano’s dog-and-pony show had its intended effect. Some state leaders called for a tuition rollback. One Democratic legislator called for Napolitano’s resignation, but there wasn’t any widespread backing for that idea. California’s new Attorney General Xavier Becerra declined to launch a probe of the university system, but assured us that “the president of the UC system will continue to come forward with information; I think we have to get to the bottom of this.”
Oh yeah, you can count on Napolitano helping the Legislature get to the bottom of a matter that involves her office’s spending habits. Meanwhile, news reports suggest the auditor clearly was on to something important — and that at least one of Napolitano’s excuses might not hold water. For instance, Napolitano denied any sort of interference in the audit, but the San Francisco Chronicle unearthed emails that raise some interesting questions.
“Napolitano testified… that her staff reviewed responses only after campuses asked for help in understanding complicated survey questions from (Howle) as part of her audit of the UC president’s office,” the newspaper reported. “But numerous emails between Napolitano’s staff and officials at several of UC’s campuses show that the president’s office did far more than provide initial guidance.” Emails suggested that campus officials “arranged to show their responses to Napolitano’s staff ‘as requested.’” UC regents promised to look into these allegations, but that’s almost as convincing as Becerra’s pledge to get to the bottom of things.
Other reports echo some of the complaints made, yet again, by the auditor. For instance, the auditor argued that UC employees receive pay and retirement packages that are above the inordinately generous packages already found in California’s public sector. For instance, even though UC retirees receive some of the most generous retirement formulas in the nation, UC offers them a special supplemental retirement benefit to further boost their pay.
The California Policy Center just released data showing that 25 University of California retirees receive guaranteed annual pensions that top $300,000. The think tank also detailed the practice of “recalling” retirees. For instance, one retired professor is estimated to be now receiving $369,000 a year in a pension, but is “one of several hundred retirees brought back to teach after retiring.” This one professor’s total income topped $650,000 in 2015, according to the center.
And the San Francisco Chronicle published another piece revealing that Napolitano’s office has “extravagant taste.” Her office spent more than $4,000 on one employee’s retirement party, $13,000 for a hotel dinner to honor two departing regents and $36,400 to host regents’ dinners, according to the report. The article also pointed to the $862,000 in rent the UC office pays for Napolitano’s Oakland apartment (over four years).
It’s hard to defend this kind of spending, and few of Napolitano’s legislative critics got into the really nasty wastes of money — on those UC “microaggression” programs, global food initiatives, programs for undocumented students and efforts to reduce UC’s global-warming footprint. Napolitano claimed at the hearing that the actual budget reserve is only $38 million and such funds are needed for cybersecurity and sexual-assault programs, although Howle pointed out that UC continues to spend on those programs even as reserve funds grow larger.
Napolitano needs to go, but there’s no way to make that happen when there’s little will among the state’s leaders to hold her accountable. She even has prominent defenders. One main argument is that California legislators, who control $3.5 billion in tax funding of the university’s $31.5-billion budget, are trying to undermine the university’s constitutionally protected status as an autonomous agency and make the university system more, well, political.
The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board argues that the large number of audits into the system is proof that “UC is getting strong-armed.” The last thing the university system needs is to be micromanaged by the leftists who run the Legislature, of course, but perhaps there would be fewer demands for more oversight if UC stopped trying to strong-arm students and taxpayers into paying more to fund this gravy train.
The Legislature shouldn’t get involved in managing the university. Perish the thought. Imagine this politically correct system becoming even more zany and politically correct. But the state Legislature and the governor have every right to do what appalls the Bee: using those $3.5 billion in annual taxpayer funds as “leverage” to force management changes. If UC wants to keep Napolitano as its leader, fine, but it should find those dollars elsewhere.