Update 6/29/16: This story has been updated to reflect an interview with UCSA President Kevin Sabo.
After a report released by state auditors in March criticized the University of California for an admissions policy that allegedly disadvantaged in-state students, the university spent $158,000 in a publicity campaign to counter the claims, as first reported by the Sacramento Bee.
According to the Sacramento Bee, the money was spent on digital ads on websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and sponsorships on public radio stations throughout the state.
“It’s completely infuriating to read for the second time that almost $200,000 was spent on changing UC’s reputation on the Internet,” said UCSA President Kevin Sabo, referring to the revelation in April that UC Davis had spent at least $175,000 on consultants to dilute search results for an incident in 2011 when police pepper-sprayed protesting UC Davis students.
Sabo added that the money spent on publicity could have gone toward hiring more sexual assault investigators or other resources that could have directly impacted students.
UC Office of the President spokesperson Dianne Klein said in an email, however, that there was nothing “wrong with the University of California informing state residents about how it is working on behalf of Californians.”
According to Klein, the publicity effort did not use public funds and was intended “to ensure the public, the Legislature, and other interested parties had all the relevant information on the University’s admissions and other policies.” She said the money came from “endowment recovery funds” — funds approved by the UC Board of Regents to increase support for the UC system.
“It might not be a direct pitch to, say, fund a scholarship or otherwise write a check to UC,” Klein said, “but such efforts build support.”
In March, the university sent out a report condemning the findings of a state audit report, which alleged that UC policy lowered the standards of admission for out-of-state students, making it harder for in-state students to receive admission.
In a letter accompanying the UC report, UC President Janet Napolitano said the auditor’s report “makes inferences and draws conclusions that are supported neither by the data nor by sound analysis.”
Many state Assembly members criticized the unusual response from the university in issuing its own report, however, including Assemblymember Catharine Baker, R-Dublin, who urged the university in a public hearing in April not to be “tone-deaf” in response to the state audit.
“Yes, our response to the state audit report was unusual,” Klein said. “We were concerned, after the audit exit interview, that the auditors were misrepresenting data and reaching incorrect conclusions.”
Sabo stressed that there was merit to increasing out-of-state undergraduate enrollment — that out-of-state students pay in tuition nearly triple what in-state students pay and generate money for programs that benefit all students — but that the university should have made these arguments directly to state auditors rather than release its own report or pay for advertisements.
“The UC just thinks it’s untouchable, that it’s above public opinion, that it’s above transparency,” Sabo said. “That attitude needs to come to an end.”
Regarding the advertisement, Klein said that the UC system routinely spends money to “get out the word about UC” and had started before the audit reports were released. She added that the university “amplified” the facts that were mentioned in the UC report in its advertisements.
Sabo said, however, that if the university wanted to generate positive publicity, it should focus more on “doing good things” rather than try to “cover things up,” adding that such efforts never work out and ultimately generate even worse publicity for the university.