Friday, December 31, 2010

Lame Duck Nominates Crane: Crane Nomination May Not Fly

In a very lame-duck action, Governor Schwarzenegger has nominated David Crane, generally billed as his economic advisor, to the UC Board of Regents. As you can see above, he is an odd mix of Democrat and Republican. Below is an excerpt from one news account:

Capitol Alert
, Dec. 30, 2010

Schwarzenegger appoints key economic aide as UC regent (excerpt)

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger named one of his top economic advisers Thursday to the governing board of the University of California, which has been rocked in recent years by California's budget crisis. David Crane, 57, was named to fill the UC regents seat vacated by Joanne Kozberg. Crane, who will not receive a salary, must be confirmed by the Senate for a term to expire in March 2022.

Crane, a Democrat, has served as special adviser to the Republican governor on jobs and economic growth since 2004. He also has been a board member of the California High-Speed Rail Authority and the Commission on Economic Development. "David's contributions during his time in my administration have shown his commitment to doing everything he can to make California great," Schwarzenegger said in a written statement. "Serving as a member of the Board of Regents, I know that David will devote the energy, tenacity and creativity needed to keep the University of California the finest public university system in the world," the governor added.

Crane is a former partner in the global investment firm Babcock & Brown. He earned a law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. He also holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan...

Full article at

Democrats in the legislature may balk at approving this appointment and probably would prefer to have Jerry Brown nominate someone. However, I Googled around about Crane and found that when he was nominated to the CalSTRS board, the following statements came up. I don't know if they derailed his nomination - someone could check - but they are worth keeping in mind given current pension concerns at the Regents:

"(Crane) has called defined benefit pensions 'non-market deals' and burdensome 'special privileges.'"

"Crane openly endorsed the governor's defined contribution pension proposal in 2005, beaming that he 'just loved' Schwarzenegger's 2005 state of the state address. At the San Francisco luncheon he said, 'All the governor proposed would be a limitation to some of these special privileges held by government employees, so I fully support the governor's agenda.'"

The quotes are from:

David Crane: Arnold's other Democratic adviser, Jan. 26, 2006

Full article at

UPDATE: The Sacramento Bee today carries an account of this nomination which explicitly notes the current controversy (described in prior posts on this blog) about lifting the pension ceiling at UC for highly-paid individuals. See

In short, Crane would likely be a voice on the Regents for defined-contribution pensions at UC, if some ballot initiative mandating such pension systems were to appear on the ballot. An initiative of that type - as numerous previous posts on this blog have pointed out - could override the Regents' December decision to retain the defined-benefit format.

On the other hand, Crane as a Regent might be a voice for ramping up contributions to the existing UC pension. In a press release from the governor's office, he criticized a decision by CalPERS to put off a contribution hike. Since Schwarzenegger-era press releases may disappear from the web, I have reproduced it below:


Governor Schwarzenegger’s Special Advisor on Jobs and Economic Growth David Crane Issues Statement on CalPERS Board Vote

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Special Advisor on Jobs and Economic Growth David Crane today issued the following statement after the CalPERS Board voted to defer its proposed $600 million increased draw from the state budget to cover pension costs:

“Today’s vote was the wrong thing to do. While the additional $600 million would have put more pressure on this year’s state budget, today’s decision will only compound that pressure on future state budgets and take even more money from education, parks, health and public safety programs.

“By not contributing today, next year’s budget will have to make up for both that $600 million and what that $600 million was expected to have earned in CalPERS’s hands. Since CalPERS expects to earn 7.75 percent net on its assets that means that, instead of costing the state $600 million this year, the state will incur a cost of $650 million next year. That’s $50 million more that otherwise could go to education, parks, health or public safety. This is why deferring needed pension contributions is the equivalent of borrowing money at a very high rate.

“Just as with CalPERS’s decision to ‘smooth’ investment losses over 33 years and thereby boost and pass costs to the next generation, this is another example of why our pension system requires reform, including the establishment of an independent board that represents the interests of the taxpayers and of the programs that actually bear the burden of rising pension costs.”

However, worrying about cranes - and whether they will fly - is probably not worth doing. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Clash of the Titans II: Jerry Brown says high-paid execs at UC demanding high pensions are "out of touch"

UC execs' demand for more benefits angers many (excerpts)

Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 30, 2010

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, state lawmakers and others minced few words Wednesday in condemning high-paid executives at the University of California who are threatening to sue UC unless it spends millions of dollars to increase their pensions. "These executives seem very out of touch at a time when the state is contemplating billions of dollars in reductions that will affect people who are far less advantaged," Brown said. Their demand comes as UC faces $21.6 billion in unfunded pension obligations and is reducing benefits for its workers.

…The executives declined to comment for a Chronicle story revealing their threat and continued their silence Wednesday. But politicians and UC alumni did not hold back. "These individuals have a limited view of what the UC system should be," said Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, also a regent. "When we see fee increase after fee increase at UC, the last thing we should be doing is increasing benefits for the most highly compensated people." Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said he will introduce legislation next week to try to prevent the regents from increasing retirement benefits to the more than 200 employees earning more than $245,000.

…Attorney Geoff Van Loucks of Carmel said he was about to donate money to the Berkeley Law School but stopped when he read that Edley was among those demanding a higher pension. "This is the kind of stuff that gives the university a bad name," he said. "I am just outraged."

Regent Dick Blum, who serves on the board's finance committee, said he understood both sides. He said the regents need to study what legal obligations they may have to the executives, and take into consideration the fact that without higher pensions, UC could lose good people. "You can't do better than the team we've got working there now," he said. "I would hope that saner heads would prevail, and we can find a compromise rather than wind up with a lawsuit with some of the university's most valuable employees." Whatever happens, Blum said, "This situation doesn't make anyone look good."

Full article at

UPDATE: A blog at the San Francisco Chronicle by Debra Saunders - who identifies herself as the token conservative at the newspaper - has fun with this matter:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Clash of the Titans: Coming to a Regents Meeting Soon

Background: Readers of this blog will know that at the Dec. 13 Regents meeting, where changes in the retirement plan were adopted, one item was dropped from the agenda a few days before the meeting. You can hear the Regents meeting on this blog. But there is only one vague reference to the dropping. The item involved a 1999 Regents decision to seek IRS approval to exceed a ceiling on pension benefits. The approval was received but the pension plan was never modified to implement the approval. The PEB task force recommended such implementation as part of its other retirement plan changes. But the Academic Senate dissented, saying that implementing pension increases at the top was not a Good Thing to be doing when changes were being made to reduce benefits for new hires. This matter could be heard as soon as the next Regents meeting in January.

Note that lifting the ceiling would not affect all high-paid employees. It would affect only those whose age and service, combined with their pay history, crossed the line.

Highest-paid UC execs demand millions in benefits (excerpts):

Nanette Asimov, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 29, 2010

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. "We believe it is the University's legal, moral and ethical obligation" to increase the benefits, the executives wrote the Board of Regents in a Dec. 9 letter and position paper obtained by The Chronicle. "Failure to do so will likely result in a costly and unsuccessful legal confrontation," they wrote, using capital letters to emphasize that they were writing "URGENTLY." Their demand comes as UC is trying to eliminate a vast, $21.6 billion unfunded pension obligation by reducing benefits for future employees, raising the retirement age, requiring employees to pay more into UC's pension fund and boosting tuition.

The fatter executive retirement benefits the employees are seeking would add $5.5 million a year to the pension liability, UC has estimated, plus $51 million more to make the changes retroactive to 2007, as the executives are demanding. The executives fashioned their demand as a direct challenge to UC President Mark Yudof, who opposes the increase.

"Forcing resolution in the courts will put 200 of the University's most senior, most visible current and former executives and faculty leaders in public contention with the President and the Board," they wrote…

Without naming Yudof, the executives claim that denying their benefit increase would breach UC's code of ethics, place Yudof in a conflict of interest and jeopardize the system's ability to recruit top employees. The 36 executives who signed the letter include Mark Laret, chief executive officer of UCSF Medical Center; Christopher Edley Jr., dean of the UC Berkeley law school; and Marie Berggren, chief investment officer for the UC system. They want UC to calculate retirement benefits as a percentage of their entire salaries, instead of the federally instituted limit of $245,000. The difference would be significant for the more than 200 UC employees who currently earn more than $245,000...

1999 promise cited

The executives say the higher pensions are overdue because the regents agreed in 1999 to grant them once the Internal Revenue Service allowed them to lift the $245,000 cap, a courtesy often granted to tax-exempt institutions like UC. The IRS approved the waiver in 2007. Yudof wants the regents to rescind their original approval of the higher pensions, but withdrew his recommendation after receiving the letter.

…The roots of the pension dispute go back to 1999, five years after the IRS limited how much compensation could be included in retirement package calculations. But even after the IRS granted UC's waiver in 2007, nothing changed. University executives were having troubles of their own that year. President Robert Dynes resigned in 2007 after it was discovered that UC was awarding secret bonuses, perks and extra pay to executives. State auditors also found that UC's compensation practices were riddled with errors and policy violations.

UC officials also had become aware of another big problem: UC's pension obligations were about to outstrip its ability to pay retirees. Neither UC nor its employees had paid into the fund since 1999.

It took until this year for UC to act. In September, a retirement task force offered Yudof several options for closing the $21.6 billion gap - and one to widen it: increasing executive pensions. Dissenting members of the task force said it would be "unseemly" to expand executive pensions. Tuition had just been increased by 32 percent this fall, and the regents were poised to raise it another 8 percent for fall 2011. They also voted to shift more money into the retirement fund from employees' pockets, as low-wage workers worried about retiring into poverty.

"I think it's pretty outrageous that this group of highly compensated administrators of a public university are challenging the president and the chair of the Board of Regents," said Daniel Simmons, chairman of UC's Academic Senate and a law professor at UC Davis.

…These are the 36 highly compensated UC executives threatening a lawsuit unless the cash-strapped University of California increases their retirement benefits:


UC central offices

Satish Ananthaswamy, CFA senior portfolio manager, office of the chief information officer

Marie Berggren, chief investment officer

William Coaker Jr., senior managing director of equity investments, office of the treasurer

Lynda Choi, managing director, absolute return, regents' office of the treasurer

Linda Fried, senior portfolio manager

Gloria Gil, managing director of real assets, office of the treasurer

Jesse Phillips, senior managing director, investment risk management, regents' office of the treasurer

Tim Recker, CFA managing director of private equity, regents' office of the treasurer

Dr. Jack Stobo, senior vice president, health services and affairs

Randolph Wedding, senior managing director, fixed income, office of the treasurer


Roger Farmer, chair, Department of Economics

Dr. David Feinberg, CEO of the hospital system; associate vice chancellor

Franklin Gilliam Jr., dean, School of Public Affairs

Dr. Gerald Levey, dean emeritus

Virginia McFerran, chief information officer of the health system

Judy Olian, dean and John E. Anderson chair, Anderson School of Management

Amir Dan Rubin, chief operating officer of the hospital system

Dr. J. Thomas Rosenthal, chief medical officer of the hospital system; associate vice chancellor

Paul Staton, chief financial officer of the hospital system…

Full article:

UPDATE: AP picks up the story. It appears here in the LA Daily News:

The Coming Budget Brownout

Wikipedia defines a “brownout” as follows

A brownout… is a drop in voltage in an electrical power supply. The term brownout comes from the dimming experienced by lighting when the voltage sags.

Wikipedia then goes on to describe the impact of a brownout on various devices. Here are some of those impacts:

* The heat output of any resistance device, such as an electric space heater will vary with the true power consumption, which is proportional to the square of the applied voltage. Therefore a significant loss of heat output will occur with a relatively small reduction in voltage. Similarly, an incandescent lamp will dim due to the lower heat emission from the filament. Generally speaking, no damage will occur but functionality will be impaired.

* Commutated electric motors, such as universal motors, whose mechanical power output also varies with the square of the applied voltage, will run at reduced speed and reduced torque. Depending on the motor design, no harm may occur. However, under load, the motor will draw more current due to the reduced back-EMF developed at the lower armature speed. Unless the motor has ample cooling capacity, it may eventually overheat and burn out.

* An induction motor will draw more current to compensate for the decreased voltage, which may lead to overheating and burnout.

* An unregulated direct current linear power supply (consisting of a transformer, rectifier and output filtering) will produce a lower output voltage for electronic circuits, with more ripple, resulting in slower oscillation and frequency rates. In a CRT television, this can be seen as the screen image shrinking in size and becoming dim and fuzzy. The device will also attempt to draw more current in compensation, potentially resulting in overheating.

Now you can read the article below and decide which impact is most analogous to what UC will experience in the coming budget Brownout. Note that it is customary for governors to leak out bits and pieces of their budget plans in advance of the formal unveiling. The story below is part of that process.

Jerry Brown plays hardball on state budget: His plan will confront both parties, with calls for tax extensions and deep program cuts. (excerpts)

Shane Goldmacher, LA Times, Dec. 29, 2010

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown is laying the groundwork for a budget plan that would couple deep cuts to state services, including university systems and welfare programs, with a request that voters extend temporary tax hikes on vehicles, income and sales that are set to expire next year. The blueprint Brown will unveil when he takes office early next month also is expected to take aim at several tax breaks and subsidies that have been fiercely guarded by the business lobby in Sacramento, according to people involved in budget discussions with the incoming administration.

…The combination of austere spending and extended tax hikes is designed to confront both parties and their allied interest groups with painful choices that Brown says are necessary to truly resolve the state's massive budget problems. He intends to take swift action, using the political capital of a new governor to confront a deficit that could easily subsume his governorship.

…Brown, who pledged not to raise taxes without voters' signoff, would face a daunting mid-March deadline to get his proposals onto a special-election ballot. He has said publicly he wants lawmakers to approve a budget within about 60 days. The process usually drags on seven or eight months.

…His strategy is risky. Voters already overwhelmingly rejected extending the temporary vehicle, sales, and income taxes in May 2009, months after lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger enacted them. But political strategists say private polls show that voters are far more willing to extend existing taxes than to levy new ones. The current temporary tax hikes are all due to end by July 1.

…Those taxes included raising the income tax rate by 0.25%, slashing the dependent credit by more than two-thirds, nearly doubling motorists' annual vehicle license fee to 1.15% of a car's value and hiking the state sales tax by 1%. Placing the tax extensions on the ballot could prove difficult. Although Democrats form a majority of a Legislature often beset by partisan gridlock, at least some Republican support would be needed for the required two-thirds vote.

…Details of which programs Brown will propose to cut remain unclear. But in private discussions, he has mentioned paring back the state's welfare program, reducing what doctors and healthcare providers are paid to care for the poor, and trimming funding for the University of California and California State University systems. Public university students have had to cope in recent years with soaring tuition, furloughed faculty and reduced class offerings…

Full story at,0,6267084.story

OK, Jerry. Give us the Bad News:

UPDATE: A similar story followed a day later in the Sacramento Bee. In this one, a key Republican expresses skepticism about getting GOP votes for the 2/3 necessary to put a proposition on the ballot. See

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Op Ed by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the UC-Irvine Law School on UC Funding

Invest in higher education: Over the years, the state's contribution to the University of California has not kept pace with its needs. The risk is letting a great system become a mediocre one. (Excerpts)

Erwin Chemerinsky, Dec. 27, 2010, Los Angeles Times

The proposals for the University of California now being considered in Sacramento — limiting tuition and fees, freezing executive and faculty salaries and increasing legislative control over the UCs — are well intentioned. But they are a recipe for ruining a great public university system. A public university has only three choices: It can be subsidized by the state, it can raise tuition and fees to make up needed revenue, or it can be mediocre. Without adequate revenue, faculties will shrink, meaning fewer and larger classes; the quality of faculty teaching and research will diminish; programs and facilities will be inadequate for education.

Historically, California has had the best public university and college system in the nation because of its willingness to use tax dollars to subsidize it and keep tuition and fees low. But over many years, the state's contribution to the University of California has not kept pace with its needs.

The regents of the University of California have had no choice but to make up the difference through tuition and fee increases. At the professional school level, this has meant tuition and fees comparable to private universities. For example, next year, the law schools at UC campuses will charge about $40,000 for in-state students and $50,000 for out-of-state students, rates comparable to those at law schools at private universities. This allows the law schools to be essentially self-supporting. The Anderson School of Business at UCLA has announced that it is seeking to "privatize" and thus no longer rely on state funds.

...At the undergraduate level, the University of California remains a relative bargain. This year, for example, it costs a California resident about $10,300 in tuition (though it is labeled "fees") to attend college at a UC school... Moreover, the UC system has increased financial aid as tuition and fees have risen. For example, the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan pays all educational and student fees for students at UC campuses whose families earn less than $70,000 a year. Next year it will be extended to all families earning less than $80,000 a year and will cover two-thirds of families in California.

...One proposal being discussed is freezing or decreasing executive and faculty salaries. But this is no answer. If the University of California is going to retain and attract high-level faculty, it must pay the same as comparable schools across the country. Over the last few weeks, I have negotiated salaries with superb professors we are attempting to recruit who are currently teaching at Harvard, Northwestern and Yale. The University of California must match their current salaries or they will not come. As much as I love living in Southern California, I could not have afforded to leave Duke University if it meant taking a substantial pay cut.

Most university professors make relatively modest salaries. In professional schools, salaries are higher because that is what the national market dictates. Paying significantly less than other schools will mean that the best faculty will leave and those with other choices will not come. The quality of teaching and research will steadily decrease and the university will spiral downward, as it will then be ever harder to attract excellent students and faculty.

...I understand why students have protested the increases in UC fees and tuition, and why legislators are concerned. But the only alternative is for the state to increase its contribution to the University of California, something difficult to accomplish in light of California's budget problems. To limit tuition increases without increasing state funding, or to prevent the university from paying administrators and faculty at rates similar to comparable schools, would inevitably destroy a great university.

Full op ed at,0,7411356.story

Captain Video saves the Faculty Assn. blog videos and audios from cloud destruction

An earlier post noted that past audios/videos of Regents meetings, UCOF, PEB, and certain radio or TV interviews or debates were in danger of disappearing from this blog due to the discontinuation of video-Yahoo. I have now transitioned these files to Facebook and embedded them on the blog in place of the video-Yahoo versions. In particular, the early materials that were part of the discontinued savingUCLA website are available on this blog at:

It is useful to preserve these materials, particularly where policy commitments are made by Regents, administrators, or others, in the event that policy changes are subsequently made. In some cases, the audio quality of the files is poor, either because it was poor on the originals or because a limited-quality file was made for Facebook. If you need a better-quality file for some reason, email me and I will see if such a file is available.

The experience with video-Yahoo serves as a cautionary note about so-called “cloud” computing, in which files are stored out there in the ether somewhere and may disappear (as clouds do). In the video-Yahoo case, the disappearance is due to Yahoo’s commercial decline in the face of competition from Google, YouTube, etc. So if you have files you want to keep, back them up somewhere local even if you also put them in the clouds. --Dan Mitchell

UCLA History: Eric Monkkonen of the History and Public Policy Depts. was an expert on murder

You may have seen the LA Times article last Sunday on the murder rate in Los Angeles and its surprising decline. Had he survived, there would have undoubtedly been long quotes and observations in the article from former History and Public Policy Professor Eric Monkkonen, UCLA's expert on murder - and the history thereof.

Of course, as you go back in time, data on murder rates were not routinely collected. Prof. Monkkonen, among other techniques, hired undergrads to go through old newspapers, pulling out references to murders in various cities.

The LA Times article looks at various explanations by experts as to why the rate has declined. I distinctly remember a talk by Monkkonen in which he indicated that it may well be that we simply don't understand why social phenomena such as murder come and go in waves. The LA Times article is at,0,1871598.story

Prof. Monkkonen's obit is below:

Eric Monkkonen, Professor

Eric Monkkonen

Professor Eric Monkkonen, Distinguished Professor of History and Public Policy, died May 30, 2005 after a long battle with cancer. Eric grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, earned his undergraduate (English), master’s (American Studies) and Ph.D. (History) degrees all from the University of Minnesota. During his career he conducted influential research on urban finance, local governments, police, crime and violence.

He authored and edited several books and published more than 50 research articles. His book titles include, America Becomes Urban: The Development of U.S. Cities and Towns, 1780-1980, which colleagues describe as the definitive history of urbanization in the United States. His later work focused on the history of local public finance and on urban crime, culminating in another major book, Murder in New York City, is based on a statistical time series back through the early nineteenth century. The book examines some of the major social shifts considered to affect homicide. These include the effects of immigration, urban growth, the Civil War, changes in weapons, demographic changes, and Prohibition. His work with nineteenth century coroner’s inquests allows ethnographic reconstruction of fatal violence, showing how gender roles and weapons shaped fatal individual conflicts. Further, by comparing New York City to London and Liverpool, he sets the current receding wave of violence in an international context. His recent work focused on violence in Los Angeles, while a major posthumous essay, “Homicide: Explaining America’s Exceptionalism,” was featured in a forum in the February 2006 volume of The American Historical Review.

Eric, who began his academic career at UCLA in 1976, was recognized not only for his historical research but also for his methodological contributions. He received grants and fellowships from organizations including the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Justice, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Social Science Research Council.

Colleagues described Monkkonen not only as an outstanding scholar, but as a dedicated teacher. “Eric loved UCLA and actively contributed to its life. Not only was he an active citizen of the university, he was a dedicated and personable colleague and teacher,” said Sanford Jacoby, professor of management, history, and public policy.

In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Professor Monkkonen was involved in several organizations. He formerly served as president of the Urban History Association, Social Science History Association, and was a member of the National Consortium for Violence Research. He is survived by his wife, Judy, and sons Pentti and Paavo.

The Eric Monkkonen Fund for the Support of U.S. History has been established. Contributions may be sent to Edward A. Alpers, UCLA Department of History, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1437, (Please make checks payable to UCLA Foundation - Monkkonen Fund.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Regent Blum Says Consequences of More State/UC Budget Cuts Will Lead More to Internal Cuts Than Tuition

UC regents brace for more bad news on budget (excerpt)

Dec. 27, 2010, San Francisco Chronicle, Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross

The University of California regents are bracing for more bad financial news from Sacramento, but board veteran Richard Blum doubts he and his colleagues could stomach another round of tuition hikes. "I think the emphasis is much more on making cuts," said Blum, who chaired the board until recently. "I think the last thing we want to do is touch student fees, but that depends on what they do to us."

Blum said most of the newly approved 8 percent tuition hike will be used to cover the system's massive pension bill - about $175 million for this year alone.

...As for what options UC has if Sacramento pulls the financial rug? "Try to run the place more efficiently," Blum said.

Full article at:

And it appears that whatever happens, internal cuts or tuition increases, the consequences will be photographed at Berkeley:

UC class melds photography, protest (excerpt)

Debra Levi Holtz, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 27, 2010

Think of it as a crash course in the culture of protest at UC Berkeley, or as an antidote to teenage apathy. A new freshman seminar that combines photojournalism with political awareness was inspired by recent conflicts on campus over rising tuition and funding cuts. It is designed to teach students about the role of photography in political activism...

The class evolved from a straightforward photography class Professor Brian Barsky taught for seven years in the freshman seminar program. Last year, he noticed his class discussions were increasingly focused on the conflict around UC funding issues. So Barsky decided this year to formally turn his students' cameras and attention to the social upheaval taking place around them...

Full article at

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Online Western Governors University Profiled

The LA Times today contains an article about Western Governors University, an entirely online institution said to be founded by 19 western governors. Exactly what role California plays in this institution is not clear although I found some reference on line to Governor Schwarzenegger as one of the governors involved. As readers will know, the report of the University Commission on the Future contained support for expansion of this type of education by UC. Below is an excerpt from the article and below that a related TV video news report.

The full article is at,0,1315053.column

This college lets students earn their degrees online: Western Governors University is a nonprofit focused on keeping education affordable: Students work at their own pace, making WGU popular with those who have jobs and families.

Kathy M. Kristof. Dec. 26, 2010, LA Times

Halfway into her junior year, Orleatha Smith dropped out of college. She had been juggling a full academic course load at Loyola Marymount University, a pricey private college near Los Angeles, and a full-time job.

…But Smith eventually got her degree from the school that Time magazine once called "the best college you've never heard of" — Western Governors University — which takes a different approach to online education.

…WGU President Robert Mendenhall also recently won the McGraw Prize in Education awarded by McGraw-Hill Cos. to innovative educators. Judges cited the university's "flexibility, accessibility and affordability."

…What makes WGU unique? Although the entire school is online, each student has a mentor who works essentially as a college counselor, helping manage the student's course schedule and checking regularly on his or her progress. The course instructors hold webinars and online study sessions, and can be reached to help students having difficulty with their studies…

…WGU instructors don't get tenure that guarantees them a job, nor are they encouraged to publish academic papers. Instructors are evaluated based on how well their students do in class and whether their students are satisfied and progressing well in their programs. Even more unusual is what the school terms its "competency-based model." In a nutshell, that means students study at their own pace. A student can go slowly, of course. But a student who knows the material can get through a class in record time. Whereas a bachelor's degree takes at least four years to get at a traditional university, the average WGU graduate receives a BA in 2 1/2 years…