The University of California Regents met at UCLA on Jan. 16 and 17 to discuss, among other things, the UC budget.

From the Daily Bruin to the Los Angeles Times, it’s impossible to avoid grim news stories about the state budget. In this context, how can we not agree to tighten our belts and make sacrifices to keep the University afloat?

It’s time for a reality check: the University has enough money in reserve to get us through lean times without raising student fees, cutting vital programs, damaging quality research or patient care. And the UC can afford to pay its hard-working employees a decent wage!

How is this possible?

Confusing the UC budget with the California budget would be a mistake. The UC is state supported, but most of its budget comes from non-state funds. The UC does a great job of lowering our expectations and increasing student fees. Low pay and cutbacks seem inevitable, but the reality is, in spite of real budget woes in Sacramento, the UC’s financial picture is quite healthy.

The Coalition of University Employees hired an economist, Dr. Peter Donohue, to review the UC’s financial records. Using information supplied by the UC, Donohue found that in the last 10 years, the UC’s unrestricted surpluses have tripled and now total well over $3 billion. Unrestricted funds are funds the University can use as it chooses, whether to fund salary increases or keep student fees low. While the UC asks us to tighten our belts, its surplus of unrestricted funds is growing out of sight and out of reason.

A beginning UC clerk is paid about $20,160 annually. CUE represents the 18,000 clerks, administrative assistants, library assistants, child development teachers, dispatchers, etc. – a large percentage of the many thousands of hard-working people who keep this university running. The UC is offering CUE-represented employees about a 1 percent pay raise (amounting to about $17 a month for a clerk). In bargaining, the UC has been careful not to say that it can’t afford better wages for clerical employees – only that our wages aren’t a priority for them.

What’s more, the cost of our health benefits is going up. In this context and considering increases in the cost of living, the 1 percent the UC is offering is a virtual pay cut.

Just two months ago, the regents approved pay raises of up to 25 percent for some administrators (many of whom are already paid more than the governor of California). The UC thinks this is fair!

We believe the people who have been setting the University’s priorities must never have had to tell their kids there will be no vacation trip this year, no movies this month, no chance to move to decent housing. We expect that the people who have set these priorities have never had to choose between health care, nutritious food or field trips for their kids.

We have to ask: What is the University’s priority?

Making the University accessible to the children of California residents? Then the regents should keep student fees as low as possible.

Quality research and health care? Then the regents should maintain or increase staffing levels and make UC salaries competitive.

How can the University do this? By making a conscious decision to use a small portion of its huge budget surplus, carefully saved over years and years, to keep this University – its students, patients, faculty and employees – healthy.

Let’s put this in perspective. Take the 1 percent pay increase the University is offering clerical employees. Using the University’s own figures, CUE has shown that giving these employees a 15 percent increase would cost less than 3 percent of the UC’s current unrestricted fund surplus. The money is there.

The UC has earned its reputation as a great University, one of the greatest public universities anywhere. What the current administration needs to learn is that this reputation was earned by the sustained and excellent work of staff and faculty.

As pay for staff and junior faculty slides and job vacancies go unfilled, the quality of this University will also slide. This is inevitable, unless the UC’s priorities are changed.

For ourselves, for California residents, for future generations of students and patients, we urge the UC Regents to save this great institution before the damage is irreparable. Make the University and the population it serves, your priority.

Claudia Horning is the Coalition of University Employees president and works in the UCLA library.