From dealing with an influx of college applicants to changes in affirmative action to running their own respective industries, these regents are busy. Frequently, too busy to answer the phone.
The University of California Board of Regents, consisting of 26 members that govern the UC under Article IV, Section 9 of the California Constitution, is supposed to have “full powers of organization and governance” and is subject only to very specific areas of legislative control.
How much influence and control the regents themselves actually have, however, is still a matter up for debate.
Where’s the Power?
Since the state provides a substantial portion of the UC’s budget and the governor appoints the 18 voting members for their 12-year terms, the state executive and legislature exert much authority, both formally and informally, over the regents.
On the other hand, the regents make the final call on decisions regarding the 10 campuses, three national defense laboratories, five hospitals and immense UC budget, not to mention the lives of thousands of students, staff and faculty.
“Potentially, they have enormous power,” Regent Ward Connerly said. “In agriculture, in science, in medicine, in business, the University is an enormously influential body. And when you are governing an influential body, then you have to have some influence yourself. So the regents are a very powerful entity and the people on that board are very influential people who run large segments of the economy.
“Influence and power, however, are like a muscle – if you don’t use them, they will atrophy,” he said. “If the Board of Regents doesn’t assert itself and defend the University against outside political influence, then all of that potential power and influence is meaningless.”
The main function the regents fulfill for the University is to choose the major officers who run the system, such as the presidents and chancellors, according to former Regent Bill Bagley.
“After that the board serves as a sounding board and as a check in case some part of the system gets out of line, but the board itself doesn’t really run the University – some of the people on the board think they do,” Bagley said.
Even if the regents do not have much power to implement the policies they vote in, they still have to weigh the issues carefully before making a decision that could potentially affect millions.
Regent John Davies believes that handling operating budget needs, including providing educational opportunities to the Tidal Wave II students and absorbing budget cuts, is and will be a very difficult job for the regents.
“Capital needs are going to be very difficult to meet,” he said. Yet, “we are determined that no matter what happens, we will maintain the quality of the University.”
The Quality of the Education
Maintaining academic quality is one of the main issues facing the Board of Regents, according to Regent Velma Montoya, especially in the face of these budget shortfalls. She sees the modification of admissions procedures or tests – such as the use of the SAT in the admissions process – as one of the main factors the regents can vote on that will affect the academic quality of the University.
Although the regents make many policy changes during their bimonthly two-day meetings, often the largest contributions the regents make are purely symbolic, simply setting a precedent for society to come to terms with, although not necessarily changing actual procedure.
The Quality of the Students
One highly controversial and publicized instance of this regards the state of affirmative action in the UC.
In May 2001 – amid a throng of pro-affirmative action student protesters just outside the building – the regents unanimously voted to rescind Standing Policies 1 and 2 (SP-1 and SP-2), policies that eliminated the UC’s ability to consider race and gender in admissions, hiring and contracting. Although this step made a symbolic move toward re-asserting affirmative action, which had been abandoned in 1995 by SP-1 and SP-2, it did not affect actual procedure in the UC system in the slightest.
California Proposition 209 outlaws affirmative action programs on a statewide level, so no matter what the UC’s stance is on the subject, considering race and gender will not be allowed in California as long as that proposition is in place.
Despite this fact, the UC is a very influential body, and any stance it takes is disseminated widely, possibly eventually affecting public policy. With that in mind, the regents’ repeal of SP-1 and SP-2 may have been a defining moment in California’s dealings with race and gender.
Connerly, who was instrumental in the creation of SP-1 and SP-2 in addition to Prop 209, cites these mid-1990s steps toward ending the use of race in admissions as his greatest accomplishment as a regent.
“That really was a sea change in the history of the University. It was a fundamental change in direction,” he said. “We had been, as a University, marching along blithely with the notion that we were just practicing seemingly harmless affirmative action.
“But beneath the surface, we were making it harder for Asians to get into Berkeley and UCLA, we were presuming that blacks and Latinos are educationally inadequate and all of that, and that they can’t get in without a preference. I just think that they were a series of very, very harmful policies,” Connerly said.
Repairing the Image
Other regents disagree with Connerly, saying that SP-1 and SP-2 were very destructive and had to be entirely and unequivocally repealed altogether so that students and others would not feel that the UC was unwelcoming to or unsupportive of minorities.
Bagley, who said his biggest accomplishment as a regent was being at the core of a movement to repair the UC’s reputation after its harm in 1995, said there were many instances of highly eligible and capable minority students who were admitted to the UC system after the enactment of SP-1 and SP-2 who did not enroll in UC schools simply due to the presence of SP-1 and SP-2.
“If you get another offer from a place that doesn’t throw mud in your face, you’ll go there,” he said.
In a press release issued after the repeal last year, Connerly said the intention of SP-1 was not, as many construed it, to make minorities feel unwelcome, but to eliminate the practice of preference for certain groups of people.
“The welcome mat, from my point of view, was always there,” he said. “If this [repeal] cleans it off, I’m glad to be a part of it.”
On the other hand, Connerly said this year that, “if we can’t maintain the reality as well as the perception that the University of California is a select, highly competitive institution, then we have failed as a board.
“If the public, nationwide, gets the impression that we caved in to political pressure and that we have lowered our academic standards in order to achieve ‘diversity,’ then eventually … the reputation of the UC will suffer. It will no longer be seen as a premier public university and the quality will erode continually.”
Bagley also cited political pressure as one of the main problems facing the regents, as it could become a potential threat to the quality of UC’s standards. In the instance of the affirmative action issue, Bagley said it was political pressure from the governor at that time, Pete Wilson, which instigated the call for SP-1 and SP-2, since he was running for president and needed an issue to attract the public eye. Wilson did this, with the help of Connerly and affirmative action proponent Jesse Jackson, with whom Wilson debated the issue.
Bagley said every 25 years, the regents “get political” and, in one way or another, “ruin the reputation” of the UC, as he says they did in this case in 1995.
“It was wrong, it was rotten,” Bagley said. “Don’t use my University to promote your causes.”
Connerly thinks his other accomplishments and positions as a regent have been overlooked as a result of his deep involvement with ending affirmative action.
“I think I’ve gotten a pretty raw deal from the University family because before I brought up the whole issue of preferences students thought … that I was the most acceptable, that I was most supportive of students – I voted almost every time with the student regent,” he said. “But the minute I took up the issue of race preferences, they kind of turned on me – it just showed me how fickle they can be and how intolerant they can be.”
Connerly said he should be judged not by his opinions on a specific topic, but “by the standard of whether I have been ‘a good regent.’ Have I been accessible to the public? Have I been true to my beliefs? … Have I tried to provide leadership? Those are the things that I think every regent ought to be judged by … I rarely miss a meeting – and yet I’m the one that’s always singled out by some as a controversial bad guy.”
Excuse Me, Do You Have a Problem?
Although students may feel their interests are often overlooked or unsupported by the regents, it is important to keep in mind that the regents’ primary constituents are not the students – they were appointed to their position by the state governor and are not there simply to address students’ needs.
The regent position is typically a minor one in the board members’ lives; many of them are the leaders of their industry or at least highly respected professionals, and therefore do not have sufficient time to hear the complaints of every student, staff member, faculty member, alumnus and community whose interests they must take into account.
“Everybody has weight with us – we don’t do things against the overwhelming response of the students if we don’t have to,” Davies said.
Because the regents are not elected by the students, they have no actual obligation to attend to their needs, Bagley said.
“You try to help where you can but you can’t help on a one-on-one basis. You simply can’t. There’s 170,000 students,” he said. “I practice law – I can’t take hours out of my day to give to somebody’s questions on whether they should get an A or a B.”
All four regents interviewed agreed that the best way for students to effectively communicate their grievances and issues with the UC is through their own campus’ administration, or, if they want to take it to a UC-wide level, to do so through student coalitions, such as the Associated Students.
Although many students, as individuals and as action groups, attend the regents’ meetings, this is not always the most effective way to get their points across.
“When students overreact and demonstrate in a totally uncivil way, it’s totally counterproductive,” Bagley said. “I do understand the organizers – they just want to create hell for the sake of creating hell … thousands of them follow screaming, yelling, breaking down doors … That doesn’t help, for God’s sakes. It’s absurd. I could see dummies doing that but we assume that these students are intelligent … The not only legitimate but effective way of doing things is through student associations.”
Connerly said when students write individual letters to a regent, the process is much more personal and may be taken more seriously by the regent than if they are bombarded with impersonal mass mailings.
“If you think it’s a form letter, then you feel like it really doesn’t have that much importance and somebody else is probably going to answer it, so you tend to toss it. If you believe it’s to you and you alone, then you feel a certain sense of obligation to deal with it,” he said.
Bagley said it is unlikely that a random student calling to complain about some aspect of the UC system would have very much influence with a regent, since they have not established an impression of credibility to give weight to their message.
“In order to have influence in life, you have to have credibility,” Bagley said. “Credibility comes from being known and having a position which in and of itself speaks credibly. You can’t just listen to somebody calling you on the phone and that’s why, frankly, you don’t take calls coming in extraneously.”
In the End, It’s all About the Commitment
Each regent enters the position with his or her own goals and reasons to join, and each has a distinctly individual experience in the position.
Connerly, for example, had to be persuaded by then-Governor Pete Wilson to take on the position, since Connerly was very busy at that time in his life, he said.
“But I finally did accept it because like everybody, I guess, I have an ego and I felt that I could maybe do some good,” he said.
Bagley described his experience of regent’s meetings by saying: “You don’t get goose pimples. You’re providing a service. You’re seeing some people, some of whom you enjoy. You do have a dinner during the two-day meeting. You enjoy company with others, a majority of whom are respectable.”
Although Montoya described the regent position as “intellectually challenging and really a lot of work,” she said, “A great benefit is working with this really great group of people. Everybody is pretty much top-notch and dedicated to making the UC better … I think that’s a real treat.”
Even though the various regents seem to have very varying levels of dedication to both the students and the University as a whole, there are apparent issues that seem to get each one who was contacted fired up. One of Connerly’s soft spots, for example, was freedom of speech, which to him coincides with the UC’s promise of diversity.
“And by that I mean I want the University to have diversity of thought. And to be more tolerant of people who have a different point of view than those who are not on the ideological left,” he said.
“Whether you agree with David Horowitz or not, the guy ought to be able to advertise his book or whatever in the student newspaper, for example. I just think that even the Ku Klux Klan should be able to advertise and it’s by that advertisement that people can see different points of view and say, well, that point of view is idiotic. But I don’t think that it serves freedom of speech well at all to close yourself to different points of view. And that’s what we’re doing on many university campuses. And we do so at our own peril.”
Connerly agreed that currently, the primary academic issue the regents are examining is whether the SAT I and II will be retained as requirements to entering the UC system, or if some other test or measure will be employed.
As this feature proves, even the student press has a hard time getting in touch with the regents. But as Connerly points out, we need to understand that these people are often running “huge corporations and are serving a 12-year unpaid term and there are nine student newspapers,” accumulating approximately 25-30 calls per week.
“I contest that I couldn’t answer all the nine campus newspapers. But you know, when the L.A. Times calls, you respond. Not because they’re the L.A. Times per se, but because you’re trying to communicate with the people and you communicate where the people might be reading,” he said.