Speaking up for UC staff in tough economic times

Kevin Smith serves as advocate for UC's 130,000 staff — 29,000 of them at UCLA.
Kevin Smith is right where he wants to be: serving as a voice for UC’s 130,000-plus staff members — 29,000 of them at UCLA — during “transformational times for the University of California,” as he puts it.
As staff advisor to the UC regents, Smith is intent on “making sure the regents are cognizant of what the staff brings to the university and to keep us in mind in all major decisions,” he said. Decisions that affect job security, wages, health care costs and more for the dedicated employees who keep the university humming even in the aftermath of $900 million in state funding cuts in recent years.
Smith has managed financial matters for the Office of the Chancellor for the past seven years and, before that, served as finance manager for Communications Technology Services. He was appointed to the staff advisor post by UC President Mark Yudof, who cited his financial acumen as a decisive factor in his selection from a systemwide field of applicants.
With the state’s consistent disinvestment in public higher education leading to years of budget-slashing across all 10 campuses, “we’re [now] cutting into the bone,” said Smith. But there is a glimmer of hope that this bleak situation might actually improve.  
“The year ahead will change the way things go for the university,” Smith said, pointing to Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2012-13 budget of $2.37 billion for UC, a 4.2 percent increase over last year. The caveat is that California voters must first approve the governor’s proposition on the November ballot to raise new tax revenue. If they don’t, UC is targeted for another $250 million-plus cut. “But I’m a positive thinker,” Smith said. “So far, [voter] polling indicates that it will pass.”
Smith’s optimism extends to seeing better financial times for staff as a result of a healthier bottom line for the state. Students already stand to benefit from a proposal Yudof is making to the regents for a $125.4 million “tuition buy-out” that would hold student fees steady for the coming academic year. Future tuition increases are still projected but could be held to an annual 6 percent.
Last May, Smith was actively engaged in a discussion with the finance committee of the UC regents about the possibility of a wage increase for nonrepresented staff. Staff are very much a part of the UC community and are making important contributions — including increased financial contributions to the UC Retirement Program and health care premiums, Smith said. It is his task to remind the UC regents and leadership to “recognize that no matter the economic climate the university is faced with, there’s a cost of doing business,” he said, advocating for making an annual merit program a high priority. “We went four years without a merit program and were fortunate to have one last year. Let's make it a regular program."
Currently, however, the UC budget is in a state of flux until November when voters will decide the fate of Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative. The Board of Regents will be discussing UC's 2012-13 budget and a longterm budget model at 9:40 a.m. on Wednesday, July 18.
In addition to financial challenges, many employees are facing increased responsibilities as departments have had to downsize and a growing number of staff retire. “That’s a lot of historical knowledge and skills walking out the door,” Smith said. “It’s a strain on the system, but staff are stepping up [to the task].”
These personnel changes also present new opportunities for staff to move into new positions and advance to higher levels within the university, Smith said. In fact, doing so has become easier with a new UC-wide online job board that allows job searches across UC’s 10 campuses and five medical centers, as well as in the Office of the President.
Smith encourages staff to visit the UC job search site “to see what jobs are out there and what skillsets are required to do those jobs, and then to take the steps themselves to re-educate, re-train and put themselves in a position to apply for those jobs.”
One source of upcoming job opportunities is the new UCPath Center, slated to open in UC Riverside in July 2013 with a startup operation of 100-120 staff. Over the next several years, the staff could expand to an estimated 500-600 employees. UC Path brings to one central site the payroll and personnel responsibilities that have been spread systemwide. Part of the Working Smarter initiative of nearly 40 measures intended to bring $500 million into the UC system by cutting costs as well as generating new revenue, UCPath is anticipated to save the university about $200 million.
To continue to get the word out on developments like these and other news, Smith said there are plans to continue the webchat series launched last year to connect staff with UC leadership. Thousands of staff systemwide tuned in, with hundreds contributing questions and comments, to real-time, online discussions with Vice President for Human Resources Dwaine Duckett and with President Yudof.
Eager for even more staff input to guide his work as staff advisor, Smith encourages employees to send questions and comments via the What’s On Your Mind link on the staff advisor website, and to also subscribe to the staff advisor newsletter.
He added that 18,000 employees recently received an email asking them to take 10-15 minutes to complete a confidential “engagement survey” sponsored by the Council of University of California Staff Assemblies (CUCSA) and the office of the staff advisor to the regents, in partnership with the systemwide Employee Relations Office. The survey aims to ascertain — after five years of change, budget-cutting and transformation — how engaged UC staff are when they come to work every day. Questions touch on such topics as employees’ relationships with supervisors and the quality of the work environment. “How proud are employees to be here?” Smith asked. “What actions can we take as a university in the coming years to make that better?” The survey must be completed by Saturday, July 21.