UC, CSU chiefs need to quit the Chamber of Commerce board

Sen Leland Yee: UC's prestige helps right-wing group

The California Chamber of Commerce is one of the most consistently right-wing organizations in the state, particularly on economic issues. The Chamber’s against pretty much all taxes and supports pretty much all cuts in government spending.

So why are the heads of the three largest public educational institutions in California, the University of California, California State University, and the California Community Colleges, members of the Chamber board?

It’s a tradition at the Chamber to put the UC president and the CSU and CCC chancellors on the board, which has about 100 members. But the three educators came under fire recently when the Chamber put out a blatantly partisan ad attacking Jerry Brown

And in fact, UC President Mark Yudof told the Chamber’s fundraising chair last year that he couldn’t donate to the CalChamberPAC because that group was trying to make sure that Democrats don’t win enough seats in the Legislature to hold a two-thirds majority. “As president of a public institution that is both in practice and in policy nonpartisan, I must decline your request for a contribution,” Yudof wrote in an Oct. 9, 2009 letter, a copy of which I obtained under the state’s Public Records Act.

But Yudof also stated: “As a member of the Board of Directors, I appreciate the Chamber’s engagement in the political process and its advocacy for a strong and vibrant California economy.”

The truth is, the Chamber’s “engagement in the political process” is almost always adversarial to the interests of the state’s public education system. The fundraising letter Yudof was responding to specifically sought money to block Democrats from holding enough seats to raise taxes -- and the refusal of the governor and his GOP colleagues to seek any new revenue sources has been the major reason the state’s budget is so horribly messed up. And that’s the main reason the University of California and CSU have faced such alarming budget cuts.

Why are the people in charge of promoting public higher education willingly putting their names, and their credibility, behind what’s really a Neanderthal institution? Because that’s what’s going on here -- Yudof, CSU Chancellor Charles Reed and CCC Chancellor Jack Scott aren’t on the Chamber board to offer advice. They’re on the board to give the Chamber more credibility. They help make the organization seem more friendly, more concerned with the public interest.

They help make an organization devoted to reducing the role of the public sector in this state seem supportive of public education. They help propagate a political lie.

I asked Yudof, Reed and Scott why they’re still on the board, and got pretty weak responses. Here’s Yudof’s spokesperson, Peter King:

[President Yudof] considers the California business community to be one of several key constituency groups that are important to the University, which is why traditionally higher education leaders in California have held seats on the Chamber board. In general, President Yudof has found the Chamber to be highly supportive of higher education in California. He cannot recall in his tenure as President a single Chamber proposal to reduce funding for higher education.

Um, actually that’s not true at all. The Chamber just released its 2010 “job killer” list -- a roster of bills that the organization will oppose on the grounds that they’re bad for business. Among them: Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s bill to fix a loophole in Prop. 13 (and provide more money for public education), and a bill by Sen. Leland Yee that would allow the state to recapture tax-credit money if the company that got the credits (for increasing employment in the state, for example) winds up leaving California or shipping jobs elsewhere. That money would be available for higher education.

 Passage of those bills would allow the state to stop cutting UC and CSU. The Chamber wants to kill them.

King did say, however, that after the Brown ad aired, he “has informed the Chamber that he will continue to serve on the board only if his status is changed to that of an ex officio member.” But that doesn’t mean anything; it’s his name on the letterhead that matters.

Reed’s press person, Erik Fallis, was even more vague. He would only refer me to a statement Reed and Yudof issued after the Brown ad controversy, which said, in part:

We value our inclusion on the Chamber board, which provides an opportunity to interact with business leaders on issues that are of vital importance to the future of California. This is a dialogue that has been of great benefit to higher education, the business community and the state as a whole.

Actually, the inclusion of top state education officials  is detrimental to the public interest, detrimental to public education and really bad form. Particularly now, when the Chamber is going out of its way to make sure that the state budget crisis is solved with nothing but cuts.

Scott has been openly complaining about budget cuts (PDF) but his office hasn’t responded to my questions.

Yee, a frequent critic of UC management, responded, though, and he didn’t mince words:

It would be one thing if President Yudof and Chancellor Reed used their positions on the California Chamber of Commerce board to support more revenue for our beleaguered public universities.  Unfortunately, the CalChamber is categorical in its opposition to new revenues and has become nothing short of a mouthpiece for the Republican Party.  The Chamber benefits from the prestige that Yudof and Reed bring to the table, and uses it to advance a right-wing agenda that includes questioning the validity of global warming (AB 32, 2006) and the need to protect workers from discrimination (AB 793, Jones, 2009), blocking universal health care (SB 810, Leno, 2010), and holding corporations accountable to their promises to create jobs (SB 1391, Yee, 2010).  It is outrageous that Yudof and Reed would serve as accomplices to killing bills that would increase revenue for higher education.

The top education executives need to resign from the Chamber board, now.