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A conversation with UC's new president

08 October 2003

On Oct. 2, former UC San Diego Chancellor Robert Dynes became the 18th president of the University of California. He spent his first few days at UC headquarters in downtown Oakland meeting with his staff and members of the press. Excerpts follow from an Oct. 3 press conference Dynes held with representatives of faculty/staff and student newspapers across the UC system.

Web chats with President Dynes
During his first weeks in office, UC President Robert Dynes is holding a series of separate systemwide online dialogues on alumni, faculty and staff, and student issues. The web chat with alumni took place this Wednesday.
The schedule for the remaining conversations is as follows:

Focus on Staff/
Faculty Issues

Tuesday, Oct. 14, 10-11 a.m.

Focus on Student Issues
Wednesday, Oct. 15, 4-5 p.m.

For instructions on participating, see www.universityofcalifornia.edu/

Demand for admission to UC, and particularly the flagship campuses, is growing. But at the same time there's mounting pressure on students and their families — due to increased fees and the prospect of enrollment caps that might further limit admission opportunities. How do we address this issue of increased demand at a time when resources are shrinking, and even the concept of the Master Plan itself is in question? [Editor's note: The California Master Plan for Higher Education was passed in 1960 to guide the growth of California's public higher-education system.]

Of course this is budget-driven. I believe very strongly in the Master Plan. I think it's one of the strengths of California and of education in California, and I will do everything I can to maintain [it]. I was asked recently my view on UC Merced, and the answer there is similar: The university must be thinking of the future of California in the next 10 to 20 years, and we're going to need that campus.

An undergraduate education at any UC campus is a marvelous education. And we continue to admit every UC-eligible student. It's my opinion that a person who graduates from any of the UC campuses is limited only by motivation and abilities — not by which campus they came from.

Despite the Partnership Agreement between the state legislature and UC, under which Sacramento commits to funding levels and UC commits to serving California students, state funding to UC is now about $1 billion below what it should be. Can this agreement be renewed under present budget circumstances? Or are we just going to have to put that on hold indefinitely?

My view is that it is time for us to sit down with the governor and the state legislature and re-craft an agreement, or re-craft an understanding of the University of California's support and where we're going. Hanging on to that old agreement may not be as fruitful as sitting down and just deciding that we're going to redefine it.

The campuses are facing some very deep cuts in the coming year and are looking at a variety of options for getting by. What, for you, is the most attractive option? Former UC President Richard Atkinson suggested accepting more out-of-state students as a way of bringing in revenue.

That's not my favorite response. Because if we accept more out-of-state students, we either displace in-state students or we find the facilities for those out-of-state students. And that's something that we haven't thought through. I surely do not want to displace in-state students in that process.

I am not willing to accept [a] 20-percent budget cut at this point — although we've been asked to go through that exercise. A 20-percent budget cut is a devastating budget for UC. I can't imagine reducing the budgets by that amount. That's equivalent to reducing two or three campuses — which is just unthinkable. So I will argue as persuasively as I can that the university has already taken such difficult cuts that it's inappropriate for us to take any more.

That said, we do have some pretty vigorous exercises going on at the UC campuses, trying to improve efficiency and reduce the duplication that occurs from campus to campus. I think we can save sizeable amounts of money there. I think it's appropriate for us to look inside our own house first, and to figure out ways to reduce our costs that will not compromise our mission.

As a physicist, do you see positive and negative aspects of the increasing shift of research from private industry to higher education, particularly UC?

The universities really do have to take up the baton in leading the research that will result in the competitiveness of the United States. That's the good part, that the universities will take on that role and the government has recognized that [they] must take on that role. The bad part is that it creates difficulties in the area of technology transfer and how what is discovered and invented inside the universities gets transmitted to serve the public good. There are difficulties in understanding who owns the intellectual property and how that's transmitted, both in high technology and in the life sciences.

At the UC Berkeley campus, there's an emphasis on developing interdisciplinary offerings, such as computational biology and the nanosciences. What do you feel about exporting that to other campuses?

It's already going to other campuses. My opinion is that the nature of creativity occurs at the seams of traditional disciplines. I, as a physicist, have been most creative when I've been embarrassed, when I'm asked a question that I don't know the answer to. And that's usually by someone from a different discipline. The most creative things occur when you have someone from another discipline who brings a different language and a different set of questions to you. The collaborations that occur across the disciplines are marvelous. I think that is the future of education in the university — taking the traditional disciplines and bringing them together across the campus or across the campuses.

UC employees have traditionally been reassured that even though we don't have the highest salaries, we have good benefits and a well-funded pension plan. Those have been eroding. What tangible reassurances can you give employees that UC is still a good place to be working?

The retirement benefits haven't been eroding. [They are] still funded. Employees have not paid into the retirement plan for 10 years, perhaps even more than 10 years. I'm a little worried about this recent decision that moves Sequoia [a venture-capital firm] away from our investments. That may affect when we have to start paying in. But right now the retirement fund is still overfunded and in good shape. So that's a benefit that's been enormous for us.

Health-care costs are going up throughout the country. This is not a happy circumstance. And they're going up at UC, though the staff here have been very aggressive in negotiating the best deals they can with health-care providers. Even though they're going up, I can tell you from my own experience that at other universities and other corporations, they're going up even worse.

From your informational meetings around the state, plus your experience from years as head of UC San Diego, do you have a sense of what staff morale is like throughout the UC system?

It varies from campus to campus. At some campuses it's quite low. There's a sense of frustration [over] salary, benefits, and advancement opportunities. On other campuses it's higher: staff feel that they've been listened to, and that there are programs in place for training, for education, so that they can better themselves. There are clearly some best practices out there; some campuses could benefit by looking at what other campuses are offering.

What are some examples of those best practices?

I'm not going to name any specific campuses, but I'll give you an example. At one of the campuses, they brought staff into the inner circles of the budget process. So in budget decisions, there was staff representation at the table. It made a big difference…. Another example: on some of the campuses there's still growth. I think it's worth asking the question, do we just simply increase the number of staff in proportion to the number of students and faculty? Or do we try to rethink what jobs are available and how we can do things better — to reclassify particular jobs, which will make things more efficient and offer advancement to the staff?

Do you plan to interface with staff and faculty who might want to e-mail you personally?

Let me describe something that I did in San Diego, which I will transfer here to Office of the President. On the UCSD website I had something called Dynes' Desk, an editorial forum where people could e-mail me….I could not answer every e-mail, but I read every e-mail — most of which I sent off to other people for action. And then, depending on the flavor of the messages, they were posted on the website. Not every e-mail was posted…but if there were a lot of e-mails on student fees, for example, we would post severa … If I get 100,000 messages the first week, I won't be able to read them all. But I don't expect there will be, and I will try to read every one [I get], once we put this up on the [UCOP]website.