On the night of Jan. 25, members of the University of California’s Board of Regents piled into San Francisco’s lavish Intercontinental Hotel for a dinner party. By the end of the night, the 65-person party had racked up a $17,600 bill, or roughly $271 per diner—which they charged to the university. The next day, the same Regents voted to raise tuition by 2.5 percent or $336 for each in-state student.
From 2012 until May 17, 2017, the UC Board of Regents expensed luxury banquets totalling over $225,000, the San Francisco Chronicle first reported Sunday. University President Janet Napolitano’s office reimbursed the dinners in full, using UC funding. The news comes in the wake of a damning state audit that revealed $175 million in undisclosed funds belonging to Napolitano’s office. UC students say they’re not going to stomach the costs any more.
On Tuesday, the Board of Regents defended their dinner expenses, but said the board would have to buy their own meals going forward.
“Up to now, board dinners have been paid for with monies from the Searles Fund, a private endowment that the donor designated for university business costs not covered by state or tuition funds,” Board of Regents Chair Monica Lozano and UC President Janet Napolitano said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast. “However, to avoid any question over use of university or university-associated funds, regents will absorb their costs for board dinners from this point forward.”
But at least one Regent has implied the dinners’ costs to be peanuts.
UC Regent Richard Blum, an investment banker and husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, told the Chronicle that “it’s kind of silly” to take issue with the the $200,000-plus tab, compared to the university’s $30 billion budget. “But having said that, there’s the perception problem.”
Student activists say the dinners are more than an image issue.
On May 17, UCLA sophomore Jack Sartee traveled to San Francisco with fellow students and an on-campus labor union to protest outside a Board of Regents meeting. State auditors had released their report on UC’s undisclosed presidential funding the week before, and the demonstrators were there to call out the school’s alleged slush fund.
“UC, UC, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side,” they chanted outside the Regents meeting. They did not know that, hours later, some of the Regents would convene at the extravagant Palace Hotel for a $15,199 dinner party for 59 people. The meal came out to over $257 per person.
And even though the costs were negligible compared to the university’s operating costs, Sartee disagreed with Blum’s description of the controversy over a $257 dinner as “kind of silly.”
“I’d say that’s completely ridiculous,” Sartee told The Daily Beast in response to Blum’s remarks. “I really don’t think that just because the UC has a large budget, that it gives the Regents permission to live this aristocratic kind of lifestyle.”
Recent UC tuition hikes make the pricey dinners even less palatable.
“UC has gone from being more affordable compared to other public research universities, to being similar to or slightly higher than other public research universities when it comes to tuition,” Hans Johnson, director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Higher Education Center, told The Daily Beast. “What happened during the recession was that other areas of government are more protected than higher education, so higher education bore the brunt of the cuts in state spending. UC responded to those cuts with increases in tuition to help make up for the loss in state funding.”
The Board of Regents voted for one of those tuition hikes came on Jan. 26, the day after the Boards of Regents’ $17,600 party at the Intercontinental Hotel. Speaking before the vote, one Regent called the move to increase tuition by 2.5 percent “very painful.” Still, in-state tuition and fees for students at the university will increase by $336 per person next year.
For a sizable set of UC students, every tuition hike hurts. A 2016 study found that four in 10 UC students lack reliable access to quality food. Nineteen percent of UC students went hungry at times, the study found. Others relied on cheap, unhealthy foods like ramen, a 50-cent meal that costs a laughable fraction of the $270-per-person dinner the Regents enjoyed the night before raising tuition.
The $270 meals were so lavish they may have violated school policy. UC reimbursement policy allows school officials to expense up to $81 in dinner costs (PDF). The Chronicle identified at least five fully reimbursed dinners that exceeded $81 per person. A UC spokesperson did not respond to The Daily Beast’s inquiries on whether the dinners were in violation of school policy.
In their joint statement, Napolitano and Lozano said the school was considering adjusting its reimbursement policy in the future.
“The Office of the President already has begun reviewing its policies governing entertainment and travel expenses as it implements the state auditor's 33 recommendations to improve the office's budgetary practices,” they said in the statement. “The Office of the Secretary of the Regents aligns reimbursement policies to that of the Office of the President and will make the appropriate modification once that review is complete.”
Meanwhile, Sartee said he and other student activists aren’t going to drop the issue.
“Students and workers have always been upset with the behavior of the Regents, and these tuition hikes,” Sartee said. “But I’d say this audit really reignited the issue.”