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Sac Bee Op-Ed: UC execs’ pension plea is demoralizing

Viewpoints: UC execs’ pension plea is demoralizing
Special to The Bee
Published Thursday, Jan. 06, 2011

Recently the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “three dozen of the University of California’s highest paid executives are threatening to sue unless UC agrees to spend tens of millions of dollars to dramatically increase retirement benefits for employees earning more than $245,000.”

Some of these “Gilded 36” receive salaries in excess of $500,000. All will receive sizable pensions, even without this increase, while their salaries, bonuses, and perks allow opportunities for additional retirement saving and investment. These are opportunities most UC employees and Californians can only dream of.

In their letter to UC President Mark Yudof, these executives and deans stated that failure to increase their pensions would be “demoralizing.”

We – faculty who teach and guide students toward careers and contributions to society – point to far more demoralizing trends on UC campuses: Tuition increases that force students to borrow more, take on second jobs and withdraw before finishing degrees; budget cuts that vaporize classes, wipe out library access and leave unfixed broken chairs, projectors and lavatories; layoffs of skilled staff that gut essential services; declining graduate student funding that leads the best applicants to choose private universities over UC; realizing that teaching and working at UC does not mean that you can afford to send your children to its campuses.

The question to ask the Gilded 36 goes beyond contracts and lawsuits: Can their demand for millions of dollars in additional pension payout be justified morally and ethically given California’s fiscal shortfall, when budget cuts imperil the instructional and research mission of UC, and when the UC employee pension faces a $21.6 billion unfunded obligation that threatens the futures of thousands of UC employees and their families?

By making the UC pension appear to be an excessive giveaway, the Gilded 36’s demand obscures the real function of the pension as deferred payment for the hard work that UC employees do now to ensure that the university remains an engine of education, innovation and shared benefit for California.

We feel no sympathy when the Gilded 36 complain that a deal is a deal. The master plan for higher education was a “deal” with the people of California, their children, and their children’s children. It has been broken repeatedly by the state’s defunding of public education and mismanagement by UC presidents and regents. Some deals, when broken, mean the difference between a higher or a lower six-figure pension. Other deals, when broken, undermine the world’s greatest public university system, narrow access to education, and threaten California’s economic recovery and cultural vitality.

We feel no sympathy for the administrative and academic elite who claim the right to be compensated at “market value.” They have accepted employment at a public university and receive salaries that, while not at market value, are often higher than those of the majority of UC employees and Californians by a factor of 10.

We reject the assertion that executives at the top must be retained whatever the cost. This big business notion is antithetical to UC’s core missions: expanding access to the highest quality teaching and maintaining the highest caliber of research for the good of California. The Gilded 36 should model themselves not after private sector executives but UC faculty and staff who teach and work at non-market-value salaries because they care about more than personal financial gain; they care about the public good.

We feel no sympathy for the suggestion that these high-paid UC employees have sacrificed much during this crisis. How many of the Gilded 36 worry about meeting basic living costs, not the costs of luxury? Many Californians and UC employees and students worry daily about keeping a roof over their heads and paying for heat, food, health care, day care and transportation.

The hardships of the fiscal crisis at UC are felt most painfully not by its elite but by the majority of students, staff, lecturers and faculty. This majority – together with UC alumni and indeed all Californians who value fairness and equity – should speak out forcefully against the blatant greed demonstrated by the Gilded 36 as well as the larger ideology of private entitlement that is destroying public education and, arguably, the state as a whole. UC’s leaders, as servants of the public good, must demonstrate to the governor, Legislature and people of California that educational access and quality, and support for advanced research – being essential to California’s future – must come before the disproportionate personal gain of the few.

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