[This piece also appeared in the San Francisco Examiner]
Robert (Bob) Dynes is president of the University of California (UC) – and has been in that position since October, 2003. During my tenure as a member of the Board of Regents of UC, I worked with Bob while he was chancellor of the campus at San Diego and during his reign as president of the entire UC system. Bob Dynes has excellent credentials as a physicist and he is a very decent human being. But, in announcing his retirement from the UC presidency. Bob is doing something he should have done the day he was selected to head the UC system. In fact, it was a mistake from the outset to select him, for which I am just as responsible as all of the other regents.
Some contend that Dynes was “encouraged” to resign by the regents because of his handling of administrative compensation and other “perks.” This is undoubtedly true. Yet, while his departure is the right decision, the mishandling of executive compensation or the perception of him as a weak administrator are the wrong reasons for “encouraging” him to ride off into the sunset. It would be useful to examine some of the problems at UC.
First, the California Constitution establishes UC as an independent, public entity governed by a board of regents whose members are appointed by the governor, subject to Senate confirmation, and who serve twelve-year terms. In addition, a number of constitutional officers serve as regents and the governor of California is president of the board. Herein lie some of the institutional problems: Twelve years is about two to four years too long, if one takes seriously the responsibility of being a regent. For most regents, burn-out, or senility (whichever comes first), occurs long before the expiration of a twelve-year term. Additionally, putting politicians, such as lieutenant governors, on the board creates endless opportunities for political grandstanding. Instances are far too numerous to mention.
While some elected officials may accurately be accused of politicizing UC, such cannot be asserted about Governor Schwarzenegger. In fact, to my knowledge, the governor, after serving for nearly four years, has yet to attend his first meeting of the Board of Regents. Obviously, the governor has more important tasks to perform than to serve as president of the Board of Regents. But, this raises the equally obvious question why the governor should be the president of the Regents at all.
In addition to structural problems of the Board, most of the Regents are generally not “hands-on” enough about the activities of the institution which they govern. Part of the problem can be traced to efforts on the part of several Regents over the years who sought to raise the threshold for transactions requiring the approval of the regents. The historical record will show that I reluctantly supported this effort. In retrospect, I believe the regents – myself included – made a serious mistake in establishing a threshold for faculty salaries, moving and housing allowances, mortgage loans, and for other transactions that allows the UC president too much authority. As a result, we achieved our objective of freeing the Board to devote more attention to policy, but we also gave the Office of the President far too much decision-making authority with inadequate oversight of their decisions. Worst of all, I believe those decisions contributed to a culture of laxity and resistance to oversight within the Office of the President.
When Regents are only minimally engaged in governing and approving transactions, their positions become largely ceremonial. Far too many Regents become enamored with their positions as regents but fail to provide the due diligence that the position commands of them. My good friend John Moores once described one crop of regents as “furniture.” They were there for the administration to sit on and gave few matters their thorough attention.
Finally, when it comes to selecting a president, the Board relies on a system that is described as “shared governance.” This means that all segments of the UC family participate in the recruitment and selection of the UC President. This is sort of like designing a camel by committee. “Shared governance” gives the faculty considerable influence in the selection, and the faculty invariably insists on someone who commands their respect as a scholar. Yet, scholars are not especially known for their administrative skills. UC and many of its campuses are often administered by Presidents who distinguished themselves in the lab or the classroom but have little idea about how to effectively manage a major corporation, a term that certainly describes UC. A multi-billion dollar corporation needs a top-flight administrator, not a scholar, as its president.
In short, Bob Dynes is not the major problem; he is only symptomatic of a deeper problem. Nothing short of a major restructuring of UC’s system of governance will right the course of this great institution. Something tells me that many other American universities are similarly situated.