By Melody Chu
The Regents of the University of California control one of the most powerful corporations in America.
With an annual operating budget of nearly $16 billion and endowment funds totaling more than $68 billion, the Regents’ decisions regarding fees, growth and educational policy affect hundreds of thousands of UC students, staff and faculty—in addition to countless California residents.
Last October, several of the regents came to visit UC Santa Cruz and were met by protestors who accused them of over expansion, fee increases, wage discrepancy, military involvement and cuts to many humanities programs.
Following the protest, student demonstrators, faculty and board members all agreed that the protestors’ concerns had not been effectively voiced.
However, protestors aren’t the only ones hoping to influence Regent policy. Some students, such as Liam McKenna, have taken the “if you can’t beat â€˜em, join â€˜em” approach to enacting change.
McKenna, a 2006 College Nine graduate who double majored in politics and legal studies, applied three times to become the student regent.
“I’m all about making change through the channels that are available to us. Generally, those channels are under-utilized,” McKenna said. “It’s a bit hypocritical that students are complaining that they are not listened to when they are not using the channels that are available.”
The student regent position was first established in 1975, after California voters passed Proposition 4 to amend the state constitution and allow a UC student full voting rights on the UC Board of Regents. In addition to the annually selected student regent, 18 regents are appointed by the governor for a 12-year term, and the remaining seven are on the board by virtue of
Maria Ledesma, a graduate student from UCLA, serves as the current student regent, while the designate—who sits on the board for two years but only receives voting rights the second year of their term—is Ben Allen, a graduate student at the Boalt School of Law at UC Berkeley. The student regents are meant to act as the voice of the student population to the board.
With the exception of UC Merced, UCSC is the only campus that has never been represented by a student regent. UCLA has had 10 student regents, and UC Berkeley has had nine. Just under half of the student regents were graduate students at the time of their service.
In theory, the student regent acts in the interest of the university at large, and not out of allegiance to a particular campus. Even so, UCSC Acting Chancellor George Blumenthal would be thrilled to see UCSC finally get a student regent through.
“I think it raises the prestige level of the campus, that we produce a student regent that comes from Santa Cruz,” Blumenthal said. “It can be a source of pride for the students on this campus, and it lets Santa Cruz, as a campus, play more of a role in setting of system-wide policy.”
Cyndi Edinger, the student regent recruitment coordinator for UCSC, acknowledged that many students are unaware of what the position entails or even that such an opportunity is available at all. But even so, it takes a particular type of student to even want to apply in the first place.
“It’s a political position,” Edinger said. “It’s like running for office. I think the students who are interested have that desire in their makeup before they even get to UCSC.”
Edinger explained that she has found it difficult to get students motivated enough to apply, even when they understand the importance of the position. As students control the majority of the selection process—the regents do not actually get involved until the field is narrowed down to three candidates—it is also important that the candidate is someone that students can relate to.
“If you really have that motivation to be a politician, we’re behind you 100 percent,” Edinger said. “But you can’t force someone into being interested in becoming a politician. It’s about knowing how to best serve the interests of your constituency.”
For a campus that has gained a reputation for actively opposing many of the decisions made by the board, there seems to be relatively little interest on the part of UCSC students to consider reforming the board from within. Only about 20 students attended the “Meet the Student Regents” event at UCSC last month.
Despite the urge to link UCSC’s left-leaning politics to the fact that it has never had a student regent appointed, Student Union Assembly Chair Ray Austin sees it as only a coincidence.
“I think it’s just chance that UCSC has never had a student appointed,” said Austin, who will help nominate the next student regent. “It’s just [about] who the best candidate is, and I don’t think we should base it on campus.”
Ledesma agreed that campus reputation shouldn’t be a factor in the selection process. She also stated that student activists could still potentially become a regent.
“My gut reaction is that it would not be looked upon negatively,” Ledesma said. “It takes a lot to get yourself to a meeting and speak before a board, and in the contrary it shows [that the] student has a commitment to service and interests.”
According to Edinger, UCSC has had six applicants for the position in each of the last two years. Between 70 and 90 students apply for the position each year.
Eric Street, a second-year student from Oakes and potential student regent applicant, explained his reasoning behind applying.
“I decided it was something I needed to do for our campus because we’ve never had a student regent, and also because I want to bring new perspectives to the table,” Street said, pointing to diversity as a key area of development for the university.
Historically, student regents have been successful in pushing agendas through to the board, and in some cases getting involved in what Allen described as “some of the most progressive actions that the regents have ever taken.”
“It was a student regent that led the fight for UCs to divest its investments in South Africa during apartheid,” Allen said. “Another student regent was largely responsible for putting together the current sustainability program.”
Allen mentioned that he was especially interested in researching nuclear proliferation as well as the relationship between K-12 schools and higher education, continuing a line of study that Ledesma brought forth when she helped establish a committee group to focus upon the effects Proposition 209 on the UC system.
Though the student regent is meant to act as the voice of the student population, Ledesma says that the she often faces pressure to maintain administrative priorities.
“That’s one of the tensions from being a student that’s also a regent. You’re also obliged, even if you’re inherently opposed to it, to coincide with the master plan mandate,” Ledesma said.
Allen agreed that the position can become a balancing act between representing student and Regent views.
“You are supposed to put the university first,” Allen said. “When you make decisions, you use your best judgment to advance the interests of the university, and part of that is understanding that it’s a public university that serves the state of California.”
Much of the criticism that the regents have received recently has been in regards to their unanimous vote to approve the UCSC Long Range Development Plan, which will allow for further expansion to the campus.
Dan Barden, a first-year Porter student, echoed the feelings of many Santa Cruz students when he spoke against campus development.
“I understand that every graduating high school student should have a right to a college education,” Barden said. “But the Regents could look elsewhere for expansion.”
Barden continued, “The UC system needs to realize that they are a huge influence on not only California, but America as a whole. They are setting the example that â€˜Big America’ is okay, sending students out into the world as consumers, instead of conservers.”
Ledesma, who was still serving as regent designate when UCSC’s LRDP was approved, defended the Regents’ decision.
“My feeling is that individuals [on the UC Board of Regents] might have various comments about growth, but the Regents as a whole have an obligation to the master plan—that the university should place more and more students [in public universities] as the population grows,” Ledesma said.
Gary Novack, a former UCSC student who graduated in 1973, served as the alumni regent from 2003 to 2005, a position that carries a vote as well.
“Students need to be educated on all of the points, as opposed to just saying â€˜Don’t raise fees, don’t expand,’” Novack said.
Some students have found other avenues to express their frustrations with Regent policy. Ryan Unser created an anti-Regent group on the Facebook in 2005, though he admitted he didn’t keep up with all the decisions and politics of the board.
“I didn’t hold any particular grudges with the Regents, but it had been a popular sentiment while I was on campus,” Unser said. “So I thought people might get a kick out of it if I created the group.”
Unser, who left school in 2003, has since decided to focus his energies away from the university.
“The problems that happen on the campuses of the University of California are pretty minor compared to the problems that are happening on the other side of the planet,” Unser said.
Jess Bravin, the student regent from 1995 to 1997, feels as though the Regents could stand internal reform.
“The university was conceived to be a tuition-free resource for the people of California, but many unwise budgetary decisions have shifted resources from students to administrators,” said Bravin, now a Wall Street Journal reporter. “For me, that was not a wise priority.”
Bravin once publicly complained that the Regents had held a private session—regent meetings are required by law to be public—and was subsequently asked by the regent chair to resign, because he had been “an embarrassment to the board.”
“These institutions were not built in a day and they are never reformed in a day,” Bravin said. “You have to know what you are dealing with and be realistic. I am quite sure that some of what I did had an impact, and some didn’t.”
Ray Austin, who participated in last fall’s protest of the Regents’ visit, believes that the board would benefit from more student representation.
“[The student regent] stays for just one term, but the selection process seems much more rigorous than the regents who just get appointed by the governor,” Austin said.
Essentially, Bravin was not dissimilar to many of the student protestors when he applied to be the student regent as he was looking to make a change.
“I didn’t apply to be on the board of regents because I was overjoyed with the way the university is being run,” Bravin said. “If you are overjoyed, maybe it’s time to go back to the classroom and study a little harder because there’s no way anyone could come to that conclusion if they were versed in the facts.”
_The Student Regent application deadline for 2007 is Feb. 22._