California, you may have heard, is broker than than Steve Garvey on alimony day. Pick a horrifying number: There's the immediate $28 billion budget hole, the more than doubling of both debt and debt service since Arnold Schwarzenegger took office, or the estimated half-trillion shortfall in funding the Golden State's pension obligations. Incoming Gov. Jerry Brown has taken his first look under the hood, and declared that Californians have been living in "fantasy land."
So what are the state's leading academic lights doing to help solve this wretched state of affairs? Threatening to sue the University of California Board of Regents "unless the regents lift a $245,000 cap on how much salary can be considered when calculating pensions." I shit you not.
The demands aren't new; they're part of a pension-spiking agreement cobbled together in the annus extravangus of 1999, in which the UC would indeed peg retirement payouts to north-of-$245,000 salaries pending a waiver from the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS delivered in 2007, the perenially budget-pinched UC balked at delivering, and now the academics are holding firm. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, it would cost $5.5 million a year to fund the pensions of those 200 or so executives (of which 36 have joined the lawsuit threat), plus another $51 million to backfill to 2007. The UC's current unfunded pension liability is $21.6 billion.
Among those threatening litigation is none other than Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley, who the Chron says made a $336,511 salary in 2009. Here's how Edley defends himself:
"I accept the criticism of me personally for insisting that UC stick to a promise that is financially important to my family," Edley told The Chronicle[.] [...]
"In terms of public relations, this is about a commendably frugal UC standing up to craven scum," he said. "All UC employees have made sacrifices - pay freezes, furloughs, reorganizations and layoffs. We craven scum (who signed the letter) are prepared to make further sacrifices, but disagree with UC staff about what's fair, necessary and wise."
If the regents go back on their 1999 promise to increase executive pensions, he said, the university will have trouble attracting good people to run the vast system of campuses and hospitals, whose total annual budget tops $20 billion.
"If UC is perceived as untrustworthy by senior job candidates, the damage may be significant," Edley said.
University of California administrators have been telling themselves for decades that they are patriotically taking a huge paycut in order to enlist in the marvelous project of public education. This has fostered a long-notorious culture of extra-salary perks and the entitlement culture that goes along with them. Recall that the president of the UC system–who makes $591,000 a year–gets an $11,500 monthly housing allowance while the 10-acre mansion earmarked to house him goes into expensive, rat-eaten decay. They, like a lot of California's privileged class of public sector workers, are indeed contractually obligated to all kinds of goodies the state can't possibly afford.
On a wholly unrelated note, Dean Edley made a name for himself earlier this year by arguing in The New York Times that broke states should be allowed to borrow money directly from the Fed. Oh, and Edley once supported the (temporary) unhiring of Erwin Chemerinsky as founding dean of the UC Irvine law school on grounds that he was being too political in his op-ed writing. Fun quotes from back then:
"[UCI Chancellor Michael Drake] lost confidence in Erwin's willingness to subordinate his autonomy and personal profile for the good of the institution," Edley said.
Edley, who worked in the Clinton administration, said it was nothing that he had not been called to do himself.
"I was questioned explicitly by people who feared I would turn the deanship into a platform for my own ideological commitments," he said. "But it was clear to me then, and it's clear to me now, that the job requires something else."
Yes, it sure does.