An Interview With Chancellor Blumenthal

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sidebar1) Student Reaction

Chancellor George Blumenthal officially switched roles from a professor to chancellor in 2007 after 35 years of teaching astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. When he joined UCSC’s faculty, tuition was less than $1,000 per year, and by the time he was named chancellor that number jumped to over $5,400. Now standing at $11,220, tuition is set to increase up to 5 percent over each of the next five years after approval by the UC regents last November. Prior tuition hikes were passed in 2009, and by 32 percent, which pushed tuition over $10,000.

Blumenthal noted the differences in student reaction to the hike in 2009 compared to this year — hundreds of students occupying Kerr Hall, versus about 50 in Humanities 2. While he called student reaction in both cases “pretty negative,” Blumenthal also said the 32 percent increase was a “bigger justification for a strong student reaction than 5 percent would be.” He said student response hasn’t been as strong this year.

He explained the history that warranted the tuition hike in 2009, when the entire system’s state funding dropped by the state funded budget of UCSC, UCSB and UCLA combined.

“Today, the issues are much more subtle,” Blumenthal said. “From where I sit, the issue is we are on a pathway that is in an imbalance, and that’s why ultimately something has to be done, something has to give, because the state hasn’t been increasing its funding adequately to cover costs. But it isn’t huge, it isn’t like the big bite of 2009.”

2) UC President Reaction

UC President Janet Napolitano and former UC President Mark Yudof both passed tuition increase plans right after finishing their first year as UC president.

“To some extent, Yudof just plain didn’t have a choice,” Blumenthal said. “He was hit with this soon after he arrived as president of the UC, and part of him wanted to say I should have stayed in Texas.”

When asked by the New York Times in 2009 if Yudof blamed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for the cuts in state funding of the UC, he said, “I do not. This is a long-term secular trend across the entire country. Higher education is being squeezed out.”

Today, Napolitano and Gov. Jerry Brown have publicly denounced each other’s actions and pointed to each other as a cause for the tuition increase.

Blumenthal said Napolitano acted responsibly and took her time to better understand the UC system before proposing a plan aimed at long-term stability.

“It was very considered and from her perspective, very logical, whereas Mark Yudof was much more forced by demands outside of his control,” Blumenthal said.

3) Chancellor Reaction

When asked if he believed all the UC chancellors agree that Gov. Brown is ultimately the one to blame for the need of a tuition increase, Blumenthal confidently said yes. He said costs at UCSC are going up, and the tuition increase — which with return-to-aid will only be about a 3 percent increase on revenue — needs to cover unavoidable expenses.

“So why are our costs going up, is it outrageous chancellor salary? No it isn’t,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal noted union contracts, increased cost of living for staff and faculty, faculty merit promotions, increased utility bills and deferred maintenance as major factors that causes UCSC costs to go up 6 percent this year, while revenue only increased 4 percent.

He said other UCs, like UC Berkeley which is comparable to UCSC because they don’t have a medical school, generate more money through nonresident fees. UC Berkeley has almost 30 percent nonresident students, while UCSC has just 5 percent. Yet, Berkeley’s campus is still facing a budgetary imbalance.

“All of the chancellors have the same issue [of a campus deficit], and we’re all worried because whatever we do is not sustainable and we’ve been through years and years of budget cuts, so we have to do something to get to stability,” Blumenthal said.

4) Budget Committee

In late January, the UC regents created a two-person committee — comprised of Gov. Brown and President Napolitano — to analyze the UC budget. Blumenthal said while everyone, including students, should have their input in the committee’s decision, he doesn’t think it’s practical to have a large committee.

“Once you form a large committee, like the regents, you know the real discussion is going to be in the back room anyway, so why pretend? Why not just have it this way, and in a way this is a way of educating both the governor and the president about what are the other concerns and letting them explore way in which they might be able to reach each other’s needs.”

Blumenthal noted Brown’s original demand after the tuition hike was passed — to create a task force to explore the budget. Brown previously said he wanted to look into ways to make the UC budget go further, with options including online classes and expanding transfer credit opportunities. But, Blumenthal said, weeks after making this statement, the governor changed his mind and decided this should be a conversation just between him and Napolitano.

“The governor didn’t want to backtrack on his request to have discussions and a task force, but he didn’t really want a larger task force, he wanted to be personally involved,” Blumenthal said. “It isn’t just the two of them locked in a room, it’s more than that.”

Blumenthal said the meetings are largely “explorational” around the future of the UC budget, and that each party brings in experts to allow for discussion.

He added that there hasn’t been negotiations yet, and Blumenthal doesn’t anticipate they will reach any conclusion until May, when Brown can revise his budget.

“It is my hope, and I believe [Napolitano’s] hope, that whatever is decided is not for this year’s budget,” Blumenthal said, “but for a longer plan for funding for the university. Solving these things year by year is not a good way to do it.”

5) Increasundergraded Enrollment

Part of the tuition proposal aims to increase UC-wide enrollment by 5,000 students over the next five years. Blumenthal said this is set to be done at 1,000 students per year, which would mean about 200 students per campus. With an already overenrolled freshmen class and an on-and-off-campus housing crunch, UCSC will likely get “mixed signals” from the UC about enrollment numbers.

He said this year there are four overenrolled UCs — Santa Cruz, Davis, Riverside and Merced. UCSC needs to make up for the 1,000 more California students who are overenrolled first, Blumenthal said. He added that overall enrollment next year will probably go down, considering the enrollment numbers this year, despite the UC order to increase enrollment consistent with the tuition plan.

6) Community College

Blumenthal’s general reaction to President Barack Obama’s free community college proposal was positive, but “the devil is in the details of how he funds it, how it works, et cetera. I always worry about how the federal government channels funding to higher education.”

He said his worries stem from the for-profit or private universities’ potential misuse of Pell Grants, which can hurt UC students because there is less money to grant. He also pointed out that in California, the cost of community college is “relatively low,” and he doesn’t want to see the state disadvantaged by Obama’s plan.

Another community college-related plan Blumenthal addressed was the pilot program that granted 10 California community colleges to give out specific vocational bachelor’s degrees for up to six years. While Blumenthal was a main supporter of the bill, the problem he raised with its author, Marty Block, was its timeline, or rather, deadline.

“If they’re going to do it, do it,” Blumenthal said. “Making this temporary program was from my perspective problematic because imagine you’re the president of a community college and you’re going to offer one of these degrees — the question is do you hire a permanent faculty to make the curriculum? Generally speaking you get good curriculum when you get permanent faculty who are working on it and setting it up.”

7) Chancellor Role

“It’s really awkward because I’m the bad guy, I’m the one who gives the bad news. I hate it even more because I’m really old-fashioned. I believe in the 1960 Plan for Higher Education and it called for no tuition, zero. Higher education should be free — that’s the right policy choice. It’s right in so many ways,” Blumenthal said.