By: David Pierpont Gardner, who served as president of the University of California from 1983 to 1992
Amid the outpouring of praise for George Deukmejian that followed the news of his passing last May, it is curious that one of his most extraordinary acts as California’s 35th governor slipped by largely unnoticed. Yet, it is worth recalling as testimony to the kind of man and leader he was.
It was my privilege to work with Gov. Deukmejian during his eight-year tenure — 1983 to 1991 — which coincided with my first eight years as president of the University of California system. During the 16 years leading up to his administration, the University’s state funded operating budget had eroded by 33 percent. Faculty salaries had dropped 18 percent against UC’s competition nationally. Staff salaries had also declined and tuition had risen. It was clear to me that the University of California was on the edge of a catastrophic, perhaps irreversible, decline.
The California economy was also in the doldrums and in the wake of 1978’s tax revolt measure, Proposition 13, the State had been forced to spend billions to bail out struggling local governments and the K-12 schools. Gov. Deukmejian was known to be fiscally frugal. I was advised to temper my expectations accordingly.
The Governor and I met at his request in Los Angeles two months after my appointment as President (1983). After lunch, and in response to his question, I informed him that significant numbers of UC’s faculty were being recruited away from the University and we weren’t having much luck in stemming the tide. I also pointed out that the heart of the University is its faculty and the overall quality of any University depends mostly upon the quality of its faculty. I also noted that the overall quality of the University of California, taking all nine campuses together, was without parallel anywhere in the world.
After lunch, and following a 20-minute conversation, I provided him with specific examples of the problem. He then turned to his budget officer for the dollars we would be talking about if State funds were to be used to stem this loss. With that information, and encouragement from me to increase salaries in one year rather than two or three years as he had earlier suggested, he directed his budget officer to make provision in the upcoming 1984-85 budget for an 18 percent increase in faculty salaries.
After a similar conversation of about 45 minutes as to the condition of our grounds and buildings, libraries, classrooms, clinics and the like, the Governor directed his budget officer to include an increase of 30 percent in UC’s general budget for the 1984-85 fiscal year, including increases for the staff and a modest reduction in student tuitions. By the end of the 1985-1986 fiscal year, all of what UC had lost over the previous 16 years had been made up. The University’s capital budget also rose by 1500 percent during Deukmejian’s administration as well.
Throughout our conversation over lunch that memorable day, I was impressed with the depth of the Governor’s questions, his knowledge of the subject, the always informal and supportive comments from his three closest advisers and his gentle courtesy to all, including me. What a day!
This reinvestment in UC transcended political expediency and defied political calculation. It was a bold and utterly surprising move that rescued a great University and all it has come to mean for California’s standing in the nation and the world. Deukmejian did it — with the help of the rebounding California economy — without raising taxes.
The clear lesson of his political legacy is that governors matter. So do the values they bring to office. Deukmejian’s included a respect for education’s transformative power in creating the climate of opportunity that distinguishes our society from so many others. Unfailingly dedicated to the welfare of the State as a whole, he was always informed, honest, straightforward, thorough, and as good as his word when once committed. Working with him was sheer pleasure. George Deukmejian was a great man who made a lasting difference to the State and to its world-famous University of California. His passing is a loss to both. Contact: Steve Arditti 916 922 1756.