UC’s Paradise Island: a Bargain or a Boondoggle? 

As California and its citizens worry about the bad economy and massive budget deficit facing the state, the University of California continues to run an island paradise for a few students and professors, subsidized with taxes and student tuition. 

According to the San Jose Mercury News, (April 14, 2008,Amid state budget crunch, UC runs island paradise”),  “The University of California has created a little-known South Pacific station it calls research “paradise” on what some travelers consider the most beautiful island in the world.” It must be nice, “[s]urrounded by clear waters lapping white-sand beaches, and covered by forests topped by jagged peaks, it's ‘UC Berkeley's best-kept secret,’ declares the Berkeley Science Review. Real estate agents call it ‘Fantasy Island.’”

 

 “The problem is, critics [have] said, UC has developed Gump Station on Moorea Island near Tahiti as a sweet deal for academic insiders while, at the same time, [the university is raising its] already high tuition due to state budget deficits.UC officials [have] dismissed [the] criticism, saying study of the tropics is important [in] the fight against global warming and that the station is a bargain.”

 

 “[s]tudents and professors pay a UC-subsidized price of about $40 per person night for a waterfront bungalow, [as] a facility [w]eb site [reports]. Nearby five-star resorts on Moorea, which is a popular destination for honeymooners, charge up to about $900 a night for an over-water bungalow on piles.”

 

“GOP lawmakers and taxpayer groups have long fought for retention of only essential state land, saying cash-strapped California can't afford anything else.” This island paradise is a prime example of under-valuation of state-owned resources. The state loses money two ways with this boondoggle—from the unwise, if not improper, use of state subsidies and the unrealized financial benefit the state could gain if the facility were leased or rented at market value.

California Taxpayers' Association spokesman David Kline said ‘[T]here should be serious scrutiny of this facility’ by the Legislature to determine ‘if the research is benefiting taxpayers.’” The state has abdicated its fiscal responsibility if it does not demand sufficient justification for the continued subsidized use of this facility by only a handful of privileged faculty members and students.

It is no surprise that “[m]ost Californians would be shocked to find out they are subsidizing a South Pacific getaway for UC professors at a time when government should be economizing and scrutinizing every penny spent," Kline said.

”Critics cite the potential high value of the donated 35-acre island parcel. The seller of a small, nearby parcel with three thatched cottages, for example, wants $1.9 million”—proof of the site’s under-valuation.

To add insult to injury, “[t]he university makes it clear… that the station isn't just about work. Its [w]eb site carries information about recreation: [s]tation equipment, such as vehicles and boats, are available for trips.” In addition, “[s]tudent blogs carry advice for free time.…One rates the events not to miss, [the] drives, [the] views, [the] ‘funnest’ places to eat….” There’s even a recommendation for the best party spot: Manhattan Club, in Papeete, on nearby Tahiti.”

The state is facing a record budget deficit of at least $14 billion, and yet UC officials continue to defend their decision to maintain their Moorea Island get-away while K-12 teachers are receiving pink slips. It makes no sense for a state-funded university to spend money on unnecessary junkets while other real needs cannot be met because of lack funding--that is just plain wrong.

 

It’s time for the state, and its universities, to start doing what everyday Californians are doing—addressing their tightening budgets by reducing costs on nice, but unnecessary, expenses or finding ways to net additional funds from better use of the resources they own. That may mean it’s time for UC Berkeley to put its island research facility up for lease at market value. If not, then maybe the Legislature should force its sale.

 

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