By Melody Gutierrez and Nanette Asimov, May 28, 2017, San Francisco Chronicle
The night before the University of California Board of Regents voted to raise student tuition to help cash-strapped campuses, they threw themselves a party at the luxury Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco and billed the university. The tab for the Jan. 25 banquet: $17,600 for 65 people, or $270 a head. It wasn’t the only pricey dinner UC’s volunteer governing board put on for themselves at the university’s expense.
Two weeks ago, on May 17, the regents threw a $15,199 party at San Francisco’s elegant Palace Hotel for 59 people — a $258-a-head event also billed to the university. Hours earlier, angry students shut down the regents meeting, shouting “greedy” in protest of the tuition increase and revelations by State Auditor Elaine Howle that the university president’s office kept $175 million in secret funds. The day after the party, regents defended UC President Janet Napolitano after Howle presented her audit — but agreed to her recommendations. Documents obtained by The Chronicle show that Napolitano’s office reimbursed the regents for more than $225,000 in dinner parties since 2012. During that period, the regents held four to six dinner parties a year for themselves, their spouses and other guests. Those dinners included:
• January 2016: A $13,600 retirement party for regents Fred Ruiz and Paul Wachter at the Palace Hotel. The regents office initially said 86 people attended the dinner, which The Chronicle reported earlier this month. Last week, the office acknowledged that had been the number of people invited to the party, and that 60 attended. The cost per person was $227.
• November 2014: An $8,800 dinner party thrown as the regents considered raising tuition by up to 28 percent over five years. The regents approved the tuition increase, which was later rescinded following negotiations between Napolitano and Gov. Jerry Brown.
• March 2013: The regents hosted a $15,600 dinner even as former UC President Mark Yudof said at that month’s meeting that UC was “working to weather the financial crisis.”
The parties shed light on the close relationship between Napolitano’s office and the board that oversees it: Napolitano’s office reimburses the regents’ expenses, and the regents approve the budget for Napolitano’s office. These parties also raise questions about the effectiveness of the regents’ spending policy. UC policy prohibits reimbursements for “entertainment expenses that are lavish or extravagant” and limits dinners to $81 a person.
The Chronicle first identified the high-priced regents dinners in documents obtained from the state auditor after Napolitano’s office came under fire last month for keeping secret funds and paying executives salaries much higher than similar positions at other universities or in government work. That audit questioned how well the 22 regents were doing their job overseeing Napolitano’s $686 million office, headquarters for the university system. Howle recommended that the Legislature take over the job, suggesting that would increase accountability.
Such an action would be unprecedented because, under the California Constitution, UC is an autonomous branch of government that the state has determined is “equal and coordinate” with the others. Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who called for the audit and wants to bring Napolitano’s budget under legislative control, said the dinner parties help make his case. “I’m concerned they haven’t scaled these back,” Ting said.
Documents show that 16 regents attended the January dinner, including the student regent and the incoming student regent for next year, as well as campus chancellors, UC executives, spouses and others. Among the guests was regent and state community college Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who said the $270-a-head retirement dinner “does sound high.” To be certain, though, he said he would have to compare it to the practices of other university boards. “But it’s certainly an area the board should look at and periodically review,” Oakley said. “We need to be able to articulate to the public that we’re being good fiscal agents.”
Another guest was Ralph Washington Jr., president of the UC Student Association and an incoming graduate student in public policy at UC Berkeley. Told how much the dinner cost, he said: “Oh my gosh, wow. That’s a surprise.”
“I don’t think any student would be happy to know about the amount of money used” on dinners, the student representative said, adding the regents should re-evaluate such decisions. “It is incumbent on those of us with the most positional power to make decisions from the perspective of those with the least.”
Like the other guests interviewed, Washington did not remember what was served. Also at the January dinner was Regent John A. Pérez, who told a reporter at the May 17 regents meeting: “I think we should pay for our own dinners.”
Pérez was one of four regents who voted against the tuition increase that is expected to raise $143 million next year. “We shouldn’t use money (for dinners) that could be used for students. Lavish meals are not the ‘highest, best’ use.” That night, the regents hosted the $258-per-person dinner at the Palace for Regent Monica Lozano, who is stepping down as chairwoman. How much the regents spend per person matters, said Regent Dick Blum, who had RSVP’d to attend the January dinner but could not recall if he went. “If it was $300 a person, that’s too high,” Blum told a reporter during the May regents’ meeting.
Critics say there are better uses for money bequeathed to the university. “This is money that could go toward scholarships,” said Jessica Levinson, a law professor and government ethics expert at Loyola Law School. “This rubs people the wrong way, including me.” On Jan. 26, the day after the party at the Intercontinental, the board voted 16-4 to increase tuition, saying they were “regrettably supporting” the hike because the university needed the money to ensure the system could maintain quality and access.
One of the retiring regents, Russell Gould, the state’s former finance director under Gov. Pete Wilson, said at the meeting that the university had done a good job of reducing costs and that the modest tuition increase was not done casually. “I think we have an obligation to protect this institution and to serve the students,” Gould said. The other retiring regent who’d been feted the night before was Eddie Island, who also approved the tuition increase.
Island declined to comment Friday. Gould did not return a call for comment. Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-San Ramon, said more information is needed about how the regents and Napolitano’s office are spending money. Baker has urged Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount (Los Angeles County), who is also a regent, to subpoena UC for detailed financial records that the auditor’s office said it never received. “This is potentially another example of why a subpoena is needed,” Baker said.
Well, some parties work out better than others: