This article originally was published June 14, 2010.

The University of California Commission on the Future moved forward Monday (June 14) with selected recommendations from its working groups, including a pilot study of online course expansion and improvements to the transfer process for community college students.

At its meeting at UC San Francisco, the commission also heard recommendations from the UC Academic Council, which said that maintaining the quality of the university’s research and faculty should be a guiding priority, even if UC has to downsize to preserve that excellence.

The meeting focused discussion on recommendations from the five working groups that address financial and enrollment challenges.The working groups were charged with assessing the size and shape of UC, its education and curriculum, access and affordability, and funding and research strategies.

The Commission on the Future’s goal is to develop a new vision for the university that affirms its core values of excellence and access while addressing state funding cutbacks. The commission, which held its first meeting in September and is co-chaired by UC President Mark Yudof and Board of Regents Chairman Russell Gould, is drawing on experts from within and outside UC to help formulate its recommendations.

Enrollment challenges

More online instruction could be coming in the future. The commission endorsed a recommendation to explore expanding online course offerings through a pilot project. Fundraising is under way for the project, which will solicit proposals from faculty for grants to develop courses and judge the effectiveness of classes that include interactive social media tools.

The commission moved forward with a recommendation to help improve the pathway for transfers. One way would be to develop more uniform lower-division requirements for high-demand majors. Currently, faculty on each campus sets its own requirements. The Academic Senate would need to undertake this initiative and coordinate the process with faculty on all campuses to implement common curriculum changes.

Another part of the recommendation was to find funding to improve the ASSIST website, which houses information about which community college courses transfer to UC and the California State University. UC runs the site, which needs $2 million to $3 million in upgrades over the next few years.

Research costs

The research recommendation calls on UC to recover more of the operational, or indirect costs, that many grants do not fully cover. UC receives about $3.5 billion a year in research grants and about $780 million to cover indirect expenses such as paying the electricity bill in labs and other facilities. But the actual indirect costs are about $1.5 billion, a $720 million shortfall, said commissioner Mary Croughan, who co-chairs the research strategies working group.

Suggestions for recovering more of these costs include creating a systemwide team that could help campuses negotiate better terms for grants and selectively reducing or eliminating the waivers for payment of indirect costs based on individual campus priorities and needs. If UC made more aggressive efforts, it could expect to recover about $300 million more in indirect costs, Croughan said.

UC could lose grants to other universities if it eliminated waivers grants, said Academic Senate Chair Henry Powell, who is also a commission member. Some funding sources do not pay for indirect research costs.

“Clearly, if we have that policy, then other universities would be happy to compete for those funds,” he said, urging caution against a ban on waivers.

But with the potential to recover such a significant amount of money, the commission decided to move forward with the recommendation.

Academic Council proposal

The Academic Council recommendations call for UC to operate at a size that is affordable in tough economic times.

The council submitted the proposal as part of the UC Academic Senate’s formal review of an initial set of recommendations from the commission working groups.

The proposal calls for UC to take all possible steps to increase revenue, fund competitive salaries to retain quality faculty and staff, and require campus chancellors to identify a stable funding stream for new academic programs before they can be established.

It also recommends, in the short term, to cut faculty through attrition and halt new construction that is not vital to public safety unless the project has a source of funding for its operations.

“How we continue to do more with less and maintain quality is the great and enduring challenge before the commission,” said Powell. “Faced with unpalatable choices, the Academic Senate believes that quality is paramount.”

Academic Senate Vice Chair Daniel Simmons noted that recommendations were controversial and that the council adopted them with an 8-7 vote, with some members uncomfortable that the recommendations stress faculty compensation.

“We need a faculty that remains competitive with the best in the nation,” Simmons said. “The survival of the prestige of a UC degree depends on quality and effectiveness of its faculty.”

Commission members raised concerns over how cutting faculty would affect the number of students who could be enrolled. Powell said the council’s recommendations were broad and not meant to address specifics but rather start a dialogue “about the future of the university.”

Powell and Simmons agreed to a request from the commission co-chairs to do more work on their recommendations.