Chairman of the University of California Board of Regents George Kieffer spoke to The Highlander on Friday discussing issues such as tuition and food insecurity.
Kieffer, along with the Board of Regents Vice Chair John A. Perez, who spent Thursday at UCR, was on a two-day tour of UCR meeting with Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox, community leaders and student groups. Kieffer has been to UCR twice over a period of eight years.
Kieffer, an attorney by profession, was appointed as a regent by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009 with his term ending in 2021.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Evan Ismail: How has your time been here touring UCR?
George Kieffer: It’s been great. I’ve been here before but I got a better picture of some of the issues that the university is facing, which I wanted to get, so that’s been really valuable. Then I have seen some fabulous students that I have been really impressed by and that’s been inspiring.
What were some of the issues that you noticed while you were here?
The campus is undergoing a great deal of growth and change. In that kind of situation, you have disruption, whether it’s traffic, whether it’s buildings, whether it’s support staff to meet the growth. I think that as the chancellor pointed out, we’re a little behind the curve in supporting the kind of growth and activities that are going on. So, there’s a lot of pressure on the campus and that puts pressure on students, faculty and staff. So, being aware of that, this campus is in need of more resources to support the students that are here and if we’re going to build this campus, which I think is going to happen, it’s going to need more resources to do that and we have to be aware of that.
Have you seen that kind of growth and disruption at other UC campuses too?
The word “disruption,” I want to be careful about using that but yes, because since 2000 the university has enrolled more than 75,000 students added to the enrollment. And we have not gotten the support from the state to support that increase. So, you see growth on almost all of the campuses but substantial growth on Riverside, and a projected growth. If the university is going to grow and we have demands to go to the University of California, some of the campuses are landlocked, some of the campuses have grown to their capacity, they could grow more, but probably the greatest opportunity for growth of the university is at Riverside long term. Riverside has the land, it has the community support, it has the ability and desire to grow. But for us to expect it to grow, we need to give it the resources to grow.
Has all of this shaped your perspective on your job as chair?
Yes, the more that we do, we need to see every campus as different and every campus as having its own issues and own needs and we can’t treat the campuses in any kind of cookie-cutter fashion. So, we need to think about each campus as different, unique and at a different point in time in its history, and keep that in our minds. Still, 99.9 percent of educating and research and fundraising, and all of the things a university gets engaged in, are done at the campus level and so I think it’s a matter of a discussion of how the resources of the university in total are deployed. That’s something I am going to ask a lot of questions about when I get back up to Oakland.
In the Los Angeles Times recently, it was reported that the UC has declined in rankings globally. Is that something that alarms you?
Absolutely, it’s deeply concerning. Something that we’ve been saying for probably 20 years, but in the last five years in particular, is that that could happen, so I’m sorry to see that kind of report come out.
What did you take from the LA Times article that you want to take back to the Regents?
More than to the regents, I want to take back to the legislature. It’s beyond time to reinvest in the university and the legislature has an obligation to reinvest for this generation and the next generation of Californians. And if we don’t do so, we are going to lose what is probably considered the crown jewel of California, and that is the University of California. We are going to lose the reputation and standing and we will not give this generation, and the next generations of Californians, the same opportunities that we gave my generation, and so that’s a call for reinvestment.
There is a lot of questions among students about the tuition increases. There was one slated for January, which was postponed until May, though it did not go through.
It was postponed with the idea of working with students to ask the legislature to fund that money rather than have tuition.
If the legislature stepped up its commitment to the UC, would the tuition probably go down?
I don’t think the tuition will go down but we may not see as many increases. But it’s difficult over the long term not to have tuition increases because the state now pays for about 40 percent of the core education budget, the lower forty percent. So if the state increases the budget by three or four percent in good years, four percent becomes 1.6 percent which means you probably lost a point to inflation and if you do that for ten consecutive years, you’re shrinking. So if you look at it that way, then you look at tuition and you say ‘well, if the cost of living is going up when the economy is good,’ then you presume that income is going up so the legislative analyst at the State of California has always proposed that we should be increasing tuition by modest amounts during good economic times and not increasing tuition during recessions or flat times.
That’s the long-term policy that the legislative analyst has proposed. And they also proposed regular increases by the state in good economic times because we know that when recession hits, the university will be hit because so much of the budget is locked in. Prop 98 locks in funding for K-12 and community colleges and there are a series of initiatives that have locked in money for other programs. So, the discretionary money available to the legislature is smaller today than it was 30 to 20 years ago as a percentage. So when you get to that point where you get a recession, and other things are locked in, the legislature tends to cut those things that can pay for themselves and one of them is UC, so they kind of look at it as ‘well, they can always raise tuition.’ So long term, we have to develop a policy on tuition and people are going to have to get used to that in some fashion. At the same time, we’re going to have to provide financial aid so that people who could not afford that are not prevented from attending university.
It’s a difficult financial problem we face and at the same time as that, we have to look at the campuses and the faculty whether there are other delivery mechanisms that are coming with the times. How is online education? Is it effective? Is it only partially effective? Is there going to be a disruption of higher education in terms of delivery in ways that there’s been a disruption from everything to taxis and newspapers. No one can see that future, no university has solved this as of yet, so until then, we need to do what we do and fund what we do much more substantially.
62 percent of students at UCR are food insecure so have you, or the UC Regents, done anything to address that problem?
First of all, we do understand that’s a problem and it’s one that I think that are not, whether at the campuses, the board or the legislature, when we made a commitment to educate a new type of student, the first in their family to go to college, Pell Grant eligible, less equipped financially than previous generations, I don’t think we recognized fully that would mean beyond the education itself. And that we have taken on a greater obligation than people probably assumed with this generation of students. So we have a program systemwide that gave additional money for food pantries but that, as I understand it, has a sunset on it, so we’re going to have to review that again. This is a discussion point because it is raised by students at nearly every meeting so that’s something that we’re very much focused on right now and the campuses are focused on but I think it needs more attention than we’ve been able to give.
My last question for you, is there something that you want UCR students to know?
I think that one thing would be that UC Riverside probably is the next future of the university. A lot of the campuses are built out, a lot of them are trapped by their land size, UCLA is the smallest geographically, so they’re not going to grow as much. Santa Cruz is not going to grow very much. They can all grow, but it is going to be a struggle for them. Riverside has a supportive community, more supportive than any other campus. Riverside has land and Riverside has energy. How the university goes in the next 20 years is going to be largely dependent on how Riverside goes. I think we need to give a lot of attention to Riverside. I don’t think Riverside has gotten the attention it deserves. I think it’s going to get that attention and I think it’s going to be the hot campus going forward.