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Janet Napolitano: UC budget problems 'can't rely just on tuition dollars'

University of California President Janet Napolitano is seen at an event on expanding college opportunity in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House on January 16, 2014 in Washington, DC.
University of California President Janet Napolitano is seen at an event on expanding college opportunity in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House on January 16, 2014 in Washington, DC.

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The University of California system is weighing its options for how to deal with a budget shortfall of more than $120 million.

At a recent Board of Regents meeting, board members expressed skepticism that they would be able to make up the funding gap while holding tuition down to 2012 levels, at $12,500 a year.

Governor Jerry Brown's budget proposal allocates an extra $142 million in state funds to the 10-campus system but that still leave the university more than $100 million short. Brown's offer to boost funding to UC and CSU by 5 percent this year, a 5 percent increase next year and 4 percent increases in the subsequent two years are conditional on the university keeping a freeze in tuition.

UC president Janet Napolitano confirmed this week that she's committed to not raising tuition through the next school year but it's unclear where the university will find the extra revenue needed to make up the shortfall.

During the same speech on Monday, Napolitano also questioned the value of online education courses saying they're a 'tool' but that even when done right "doesn't save all that much money."

How can the University of California system make up its budget shortfall while still being committed to tuition hikes? How long can UC sustain the tuition freeze?

Interview Highlights: 

You said there's not going to be a tuition increase next year. How else can you close that gap?

"We have a lot things that we can look at, but let me say it again, we are not raising tuition in 2014 and 2015 and we're very insistent on that. That doesn't mean that we don't need to continue to look for ways to tighten our belts and maybe not be able to do some of the things we would like to be able to do to continue to maintain the University of California as the leading public research university in the country, if not the world. But we will not raise tuition this year." 

Assembly Speaker John Pérez says Cal State might get more than the Governor proposed, what are the prospects for you getting more than the 5 percent in his proposed budget?

"In his proposed budget we would get 9 percent more next year, of course, obviously, we like that budget better than the governor's, but there's a lot of things that go into budgets and as you know they re-estimate the revenues coming into the state in May, and that may have some impact as well, both on the legislature and on the governor's perspective. I think where we need to start off is saying, look, University of California is this unique treasure. It contributes in myriad ways to the economic and social well being of California. What do we need to do to support it and maintain its excellence?"

Have you spoken yet today at the Cal State meeting in Long Beach?

"Yes I did, I spoke there this morning. The three heads of the higher education legs in California — community colleges, Cal State and myself as the UC — all spoke together." 

I know some students were planning to protest. Were there many of them outside the auditorium?

"No they had not assembled by the time we were speaking, so they may be there now, but they weren't there when we were speaking."

They're against what are called student success fees to pay for more classes, faculty and other services at CSUs. Dominguez Hills considering a $280 per semester fee for students, like UC students. They've absorbed big tuition increases. Do you think CSU potentially doing this on select campuses violates the governor's demand that state universities freeze tuition?

"I don't know enough about the issue to express an opinion. I do know enough about the University of  California to say that we have a very specific process by which fees can be raised, and they can only be used for certain student activities and student purposes. That process is, indeed, voted on by the students themselves, so we adhere to that process and again with respect to tuition, we will not raise it this year.

Let me make another point, however, and that is this. The reason the three of us are speaking together is to make the point that the expectation that higher education in California has been there since at least the master plan, 50 years ago, and we have to fight to make sure that the next generation of Californians has the same kind of opportunity that those who came before did.

That can't rely just on tuition dollars. There has to be an active participation and partnership with the state, and I think increasingly with the private sector and private philanthropy as well. If we are really going to meet the challenges and the need for higher education in California."

RELATED: Students say Cal State broke tuition freeze promise 

One of the approaches that Governor Brown has touted, and many in higher education as well, is online learning as a way to more inexpensively provide basic education courses. A couple of days ago, you were speaking at a Sacramento lunch and you expressed skepticism about online learning taking a significant percentage of that out of the classroom. Why are you skeptical?

"I was skeptical for two reasons. Number one, I think online learning, originally when it was conceived, was going to be these kind of mass online courses that thousands would take and it would solve all of the capacity issues in higher education. As people have delved more into it, they've found out that, no, sitting in front of a computer screen is not the same as sitting in a classroom with a professor, a teaching assistant, others, and having that engagement there and with your fellow students... It is and has a very useful purpose.

It turns out that it's most useful purpose is probably not at basic or remedial coursework where students really do need extra attention. That's why they're taking it. In some of our upper division courses, where students are already in a major they already know where they're going, there are ways we can offer courses at one of our campuses that students at other campuses can take, and that's the way  of using online most productively. We've got 33 dozen or so courses that are being piloted now in that regard."

I guess I'm thinking of survey courses, introductory level courses where you've got 500 students sitting in an auditorium far distant from the professor or TA. Wouldn't it be just as good to have a student at a computer as opposed to sitting in a massive lecture hall?

"In terms of watching a lecture, yes, but then you also then have to have the follow up, which those big lecture halls do with smaller sections and breakouts with teaching assistants and the like, so, in terms of being a big money saver or something of that sort, which is what online was looked at to be, a lot of the associated things that go with a big lecture still must be done." 

When you were chosen for this position, there was significant pushback among some from the UC in feeling that you were not the right person for this job. Do you feel that you've overcome that skepticism in your six months or do you still feel like there's some who are very resistant to you?

"I think that when the regents selected me they were looking for someone with a proven track record of leading huge, complex organizations. I'm really, if you think about it and the way the UC is organized, I'm kind of like a CEO. The chancellors of each campus run the academic missions of the campuses. I support them and make sure that they are, and I fight for getting them the support they need to do their jobs. So the job of president of the University of California is a little bit different than I think people perhaps perceive.

There are some who I think will never be accepting of thinking outside the box to have someone like me in a role like this, but my experience over the last six months has been more and more people are excited. There's new energy, there are new ideas, there's new things we can do. It's a great time to come to California and to really help lead higher education now."

In a nutshell, what do you think is going to be the most important task you're going to carry out in the next six to nine months as you lead the UC?

"I've announced a number of initiatives, beginning with tuition, that I want to bring to fruition and I want to begin having us think three years, five years, down the road in terms of what do we need to do to educate the next generation of Californians and maintain the kind of excellence that's always been the hallmark of UC."