On Wednesday, higher education reporter Jessica Rossoni sat down with UC Student Regent Alfredo Mireles, Jr., to talk about the state budget, advocating for the university at the state level and the role of the student regent.
JR: So I’d like to start of with just a few questions on the general state of the UC, with concern to state revenues falling behind targets and things like that. Obviously, you are going to be concerned, but what are your chief concerns moving forward?
AM: Well, let me take a step back and say, despite all the challenges that we just described at the ASUC meeting, the University of California continues to thrive and be successful, more so than almost any other university system in the world. We just had another Nobel Laureate — I think he was a Berkeley professor. We’re seeing an increase in the amount of students that graduate in six years, we’re seeing it become more selective to come to the UC, we’re seeing more applicants. So although most of our presentation was focusing on some of the very challenging financial circumstances that we have, I want to be clear and say that we continue to thrive despite all the challenges. However, let me speak to the challenges. As we described during our presentation to the ASUC, we have some incredibly big problems in the near future, and that’s something I think students need to understand, because if all students don’t know the information that the regents are using to base their decisions on, like what it’s going to cost to go to the UC in the next couple years, then I feel that we can’t have an adequate voice.
Anyways, I think I’m kind of dancing around your question a little bit, but you know the challenges are immense — we have a projected $2.4 billion budget shortfall in the next few years, and although we’ve saved about a billion dollars internally, we still have about $1.4 billion to try to find somewhere. And unfortunately, the two primary ways we get that are state funding and tuition increases, and some of us aren’t particularly optimistic that the state is going to give us more money, let alone give us the same amount of money that they did last year, so that’s going to continue to be a challenge.
JR: So in regards to the state not giving the UC system more money, what do you think is going to happen in the next few years? I know we had some controversial budget proposals at the last regents’ meeting, so in regards to that, do you think that’s a likely scenario? Is the state going to completely divest from the UC system?
AM: In 2007-08 we got $3.2 billion for academic expenses for the UC. This year, if we get another $100 million cut by the trigger cuts by the governor, we’ll get $2.2 billion. So we’re seeing about a billion dollar loss in, what, four years, which is almost a third of our state funding. So I mean, it’s an ominous trend, clearly. Jonathan (Stein, student regent-designate) and I talked about a couple of hopes we have that could potentially be solutions: studying the PAC, having the political influence to pressure legislators and the governor to prioritize UC and higher education when they’re making budgets. We also have to hope that the California economy rebounds sooner than later because if we continue to see the California economy retract it’s going to be even more pressure at the state level to cut us further. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to be too pessimistic. About five years from now, we’re going to have to fight each day’s battle as it comes. It’s tremendously challenging, and we’re still trying to find the right answers to figure out these big problems.
JR: So in the times of all these budget cuts, do you think the UC’s ideals — access, affordability and excellence — are being met, or do you feel that some of them are being sacrificed in light of the state’s continued divestment from higher ed?
AM: … So let’s talk access. UC still has a spot for every eligible California high school graduate. They may not get the opportunity to go to the campus that they want to. I’m going to be a little partisan here — my dream school was Berkeley. When I got into Berkeley, I felt so overjoyed and I feel so privileged that I was able to go to this campus, especially somebody with my background — my parents didn’t go to college, my dad went until sixth grade. So access continues to be maintained. Quality, from the regential level, I think I listed some of the metrics we use for quality. We’re getting stronger applicants, we’re becoming more selective, we’re seeing our graduation rates increase. There might be some individual students that have experiences where they feel that the quality has been diminished, but the big picture metrics we use still has us to be an especially high quality institution. Affordability, that’s the tricky one, right? But that’s a nuanced question as well. So if you are a middle-low income student and non-AB 540 student, through the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, families who make up to $80,000, their children still come to UC for free. So what we saw in the presentation was 39 percent of UC students are Pell Grant recipients, which means they would also qualify for Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which means those 39 percent plus almost another 10 percent, so about 50 percent of UC students don’t pay tuition through Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan. And the middle-income students, they have it harder, but we have some policies in place to make sure that they’re not feeling all the effects of the tuition increases. So last November in our fee policy it said students who come from families who make between $80,000 and $120,000, they did not have to pay any of the tuition increases that have been imposed over the last year … So they’re still paying what it costs to go to school last year. So that’s clearly not enough, but we’re at least working towards making sure the university still remains kind of affordable. Soon as you come from high income backgrounds, it’s a more challenging question. It’d be interesting to hear from them, if they think it’s affordable to them. But in summation — I know I can be verbose — it’s not as bleak as I think sometimes we make it sound, especially for students from low income backgrounds, it’s still an affordable place to go to school, not so much for middle and high income students. But I think the policies that we have in place do prioritize those who need those resources the most.
JR: Do you think that’s something that we will continue to be able to do?
AM: It’s in the plans to continue doing that. We might work on the margins a little bit to change it. And there’s a middle-income student financial work group forming at the Office of the President to make sure that those middle income students have their needs addressed better in the future, especially if we continue to see fee increases. Jonathan and I will both serve on that committee. So we need to make sure that we are dogged and we are forceful that those students need our advocacy just as much as low income students do.
JR: In addressing the fact that the students do need your advocacy, what do you personally hope to accomplish in the next year? As your role keeps going, do you have any specific plans as the student regent to address these issues?
AM: … I mean, my primary responsibility is to make sure the students have a voice at the Board of Regents, and there’s some relatively agreed upon consensus issues that I think most students would acknowledge that are in their interest. Preventing tuition increases, I mean, most of the students, that position is supported, so that’s something I’m always going to take that position on. Making the university hospitable to people of all backgrounds, you know that’s something I’m committed to doing, I will work towards aggressively and I hope when my term is done, people will say that is something I advocated for. But then, I do have some personal issues that I’d like to put forward that kind of stem from my experiences and my background. Just for your readers, I’m a registered nurse for about five years. I go to UCSF, where I study health policy in graduate school, and UCSF is a world leader in tobacco control policy and research. So one of the things I hope to do personally is to do a “Tobacco Free UC” where tobacco consumption, purchasing and tobacco investments are no longer allowed at the University of California. That’s kind of something I’ve been talking about my whole time as student regent, and it’s something I’m going to work on, I’ve already been working on, but will work on a little bit more in the next couple of months, and hopefully bring it to the board some time next year.
JR: So you mentioned that at the end of your term, you want people to be able to reflect and say that you advocated for students in light of the pretty scary picture we’re looking at right now. So more specifically, in addition to participating in regents’ meetings and things like that, do you have a plan for maybe lobbying or things like that? What is your specific, personal plan to combat or address some of these issues?
AM: One of the reasons why I’m at Berkeley today is because one of, I thought, the glaring holes in how students were given information was that the information that the regents get oftentimes doesn’t trickle down to students. So as for what we said in our presentation, the presentation we gave today is the information that regents are going to use to make future decisions, and that’s why I felt it was so important to organize a tour of the 10 campuses to make sure students, student leaders were informed on that information. So I feel that the most important work of the student regent is the advocacy, taking what I learn at the Board of Regents and translating that back to students. Some of the regents feel that it’s my job to tell them what students think, but you know, that’s important too, but I think it’s more important to translate the different world that the regents live in to the world that the average, every day average student lives in. Take my personal example for instance. So again, I think I touched on this. I’m a first generation student. I was a transfer student. My mom went to community college, my dad went to sixth grade. When I got to Cal in 2001, I only knew the regents as the people I wrote my checks to. But now, serving on the board, you realize that the decisions they make are so influential on almost every issue that affects students. So helping students understand that is something that I feel is probably my most important duty. When it comes to lobbying, again, I’ve worked in the state capital. My friends worked for leadership in both houses. I know assemblymembers and senators personally. It’s a skill set I thought I could bring to this job, and it’s one of the reasons I thought I would be good in this position. Even with those personal relationships, even understanding the people that make the decisions, it’s still my belief that we’ve yet to become one of the top priorities of the state government, and we’re still working on a way to change that. We think the political action committee might do that. UCSA is doing a postcard campaign. We think that might help do it. I’m only one person. We need students from all campuses engaged at every level. I’d say the student regent is probably the continuum of student advocacy. From the people who do protests on campus, to the people who do lobbying in Sacramento, to the people who come to regents’ meetings and speak during public comment to the student regent actually sitting on the board. I think it would be foolish to just exclusively rely on the one or two people in the position me and Jonathan serve in and realize that we need all hands on deck helping with these tremendous problems.
JR: In referencing back to the PAC, can you talk a little bit more about what you hope forming that will do and what effect it could have in moving forward?
AM: This is something Jonathan and I serve on in a private capacity. This is not something we serve on in our official capacity as student regent. I just wanted to clarify that. Unfortunately, to have influence in Sacramento, you have to be able to donate to campaigns and candidates.
JR: Yeah, you need money.
AM: And we were tired of being one of the only interest groups to not have the resources available to do that, so thankfully there’s a group of relatively wealthy and successful UC alumni, primarily based in Los Angeles, that finally had enough of all the cuts and decided to finally form a PAC, well two PACs. One for initiatives and one for candidates to finally have some influence over the state government. The tricky thing is we have a long way to go before we’re as influential as the prison guard union or the teacher unions, for instance, but you’ve got to start somewhere and that’s where we’re at.
JR: So at the last regents’ meeting and several regents’ meetings, Chair Lansing and others have stressed the importance of the UC community to get behind this effort and to tell Sacramento that enough is enough and lead that effort. Do you think the regents are actually doing that and leading the UC community to go to Sacramento and really make their voices heard?
AM: I do, and let me go into detail about that. I think that’s a common concern we hear from people who think the regents don’t do lobbying, but I’ll remind people who hold that position that many of the regents are incredible, well-connected people who served in very senior level government positions in Sacramento. Our former chairman (Russell) Gould was the director of finance for Gov. Pete Wilson, and he’s still called upon by leaders in Sacramento for his advice on how to handle issues. The director of finance is seen as the first among equals, as far as the most important influential appointed positions by the governor. So having him as a regent is an incredibly valuable resource. Regent Charlene Zettell is a former assemblymember from San Diego. So she still has allies and colleagues in elected and state government, who are friends that she can call upon. Regent (George) Kieffer is a partner in a very influential law firm in Los Angeles, who is very well connected to Sacramento. And I’m just scratching the surface here. To get appointed as a regent you have to have some clout in the state and honestly to kind of push back against a commonly held position. It’s not just the most people who donate the most money to a gubernatorial campaign — it’s people who, for one reason or another, have caught the interest of the governor, and in a lot of cases, it’s because they’ve shown commitment to public service in the state government, and they’re seen as tremendous resources once they’re no longer in their official capacity as director of finance or assemblyperson, but now they can serve as a regent with that background and experience.
JR: So you talked a lot about the connections the UC Regents have, but do you have any specific examples of the results that those connections have brought to the UC?
AM: To be fair, I don’t go to the meetings with Russ Gould and the current director of finance. I think it would be inappropriate for me to speculate, but I want to reiterate — it could go against us sometimes if a well connected regent is not in the political favor of the current governor or the current administration, but we have people who have been dedicated public servants and now serve in the capacity of regent and not all of them but many of them, it’s to the benefit of the University of California student.
JR: I’d like to switch gears a little bit. So, this is a pretty general question, but the DREAM Act was passed — what are your thoughts on that?
AM: Sure. So in most cases, most cases I try to be not explicitly political about things. I realize I represent students from all backgrounds, and that means something to me, that matters to me, but this is kind of another personal thing, but you know my dad came to this country undocumented, right, so I’m a native-born Californian, but this is an incredibly personal issue for me. I know tons of people who, I know several people who are going to benefit from the DREAM Act passing, so on a very personal level I’m incredibly excited about it. But then you know to take a step back, I think – imagine what it would take to grow up undocumented, and still have the wherewithal to get into a UC school, let alone UC Berkeley. Don’t you think it’s in our state and country’s interest to want to harness that energy and use it in a constructive way? I mean, it just makes no sense, that people that have the wherewithal and the internal strength and the determination to get to UC Berkeley undocumented should not … I mean, we should be making those people president — they could probably do anything. So anyways, I feel like it’s wasted human capital to not try to bring those people in and out of the shadows and into being fully participatory and in college, and as citizens. Hopefully that’s clear, sometimes I … But what I would say is, what we can’t do, is lose focus that the federal DREAM Act is much more important than the California DREAM Act, so in summation, I’m incredibly happy that the (state) DREAM Act passed, it affects me on a very personal level. But we can’t give up our fight for the federal DREAM Act, which would just be a boon to, you know, the people who have unfortunately had to live in the shadows, who can’t really make important contributions to the state and the country.
JR: OK, so focusing back in on the immediate future, I know there’s some days of action coming up, and I know you and Jonathan touched on that in your meeting earlier. So I guess, what is your position as a student regent on the days of action that are coming up, and what do you hope … do you have any opinion on what you hope will come of the day of action?
AM: Any time there’s students who are willing to take time out of their lives to show support for higher education, I am all for it, and even if they do it in a way that I would maybe be personally uncomfortable with, you know like, student advocacy is a spectrum and a continuum. There’s people who serve like me on the Board of Regents, who, you know, wear a suit and have to sound professional all the time. But then there’s people — who might be the same people, actually — then there’s people who we need, you know, raising hell and in front of Sproul Plaza or raising hell in Sacramento, and you know, I think, the most important thing is that we see that we’re in this together, and although we may take alternative tacts in promoting the student agenda, we have to see each other as allies, and even if there’s times where there’s disagreement in style or communication and whatever, you know, as long as we’re making sure that, you know, that decision makers know that students need to be heard and the UC needs to be fully funded, I’m all for it.
JR: OK, so this is my last question …
AM: It better be hard.
JR: With the November regents meeting coming up, I know we’ve talked about this on the phone before, but I remember at the last regents meeting, when the controversial, some of the more controversial topics were brought up, you didn’t speak up and have your voice heard in that conversation. And I know this Regents’ meeting, a lot of important decisions are going to be made and stuff is moving forward. So, are you going to speak? What is your plan for how you’re going to have the student voices be present in that meeting.
AM: Sure, you know we’ve talked about this issue in the past. Let’s see, I guess one thing I’ve thought about in the wake of being criticized for not speaking is I ask the Daily Cal staff and the readers of the Daily Cal to focus on outcomes, not process. Don’t get me wrong, speaking up is an incredibly important part of advocating for student interests. That might’ve been the only meeting — I did speak at that meeting, I just didn’t speak during that specific issue. I think I went into details as to why during our interview. But yeah, I would just ask the Daily Cal and your readers to remember that there’s a lot of other ways you can advocate for student interests besides speaking at meetings. I realize that’s the most public and that’s probably the one that’s the most reported on, but you have to understand it’s oftentimes the sidebar conversations that have the most influence. Let me give you an example. In the July Regents’ meeting, there was concern that in the tuition increase vote there was a tied-in second tuition increase vote if the trigger cuts happened … But within the agenda item, which was unclear to many regents, was a section that said, “We’re running on a (9.6) percent increase and then if we get cut $100 million again the regents will potentially have to vote for another 5.9 percent fee increase to fill that hundred million.” So, it was unclear whether we were voting on two fee increases or one fee increase. We heard in public comment from many students that, “Hey, we want you to separate these things out. We want a chance for students to speak out against second fee increases, if we have the trigger cuts, we want a chance to speak out against it again.” So I think Chair Lancing heard it, I’m pretty sure the chair of the finance committee, Regent Varner, heard it. But what I did, to make sure that they heard it was, while students were speaking, I got out of my chair, I went and whispered in Regent Varner’s ear, “Hey, you know, can we make sure that’s not something we’re not voting on? Can you, as a chairperson, say that’s not something we’re voting on?” And he agreed to do it. So, I think I was able to have that quick, civil sidebar conversation because I had met with him two weeks earlier to try to understand what he wanted to do as a chair of the finance committee. Which, I acknowledge, is a luxury that a student regent has that most other students don’t have. But what I’m doing constantly, if it’s not public at a regents meeting, is trying to understand where the regents are personally so when an issue comes up, I know where their leverage points are, right? I have this relationship with Regent Varner, he’s seen me as a serious person who wants to affect change for the right reasons. And then when an issue came up, I didn’t have to turn on my mic and say, “Regent Varner, you’re doing this all wrong, you have to remove that 5.9 percent or you’re disenfranchising students from sharing their opinion when the fee increase would be assessed.” I was able as a colleague to say, “Hey Bruce” – his first name – “Hey Bruce, can you make sure we’re not voting on that 5.9 percent fee increase right now because we don’t think that’s fair as students.” And, you know, the chair agreed and we took that out, and now moving forward, even if we get that trigger cut it doesn’t seem like we’re gonna have additional mid year fee increase — not that the two are connected, but just to give your readers more information. So anyways, so that’s kind of a long story, and I’m not saying like I won’t speak out at future regents meeting or at times when students feel its important to speak, but I would say that it’s important to acknowledge that talking at regents meetings is not the only time you can be effective for advocating for students.
JR: So, do you feel that those two things are at somehow at odds with each other? Like if you were to speak up more in regents meeting that maybe some of your colleagues on the board of regents would, I don’t want to say, take you less seriously …
AM: No, it’s OK, that’s fine. What would you expect that student regent to say, if we’re talking 16 percent fee increases for 4 years?
JR: Well, it’s my understanding that the role of the student regent is to be the advocate for what the students want, and to sit in on a meeting that otherwise thousands of students are unable to sit in on, and to act in the way we would act.
AM: Sure, and what I’m saying is, if all I said was, “We can’t raise student fees 16 percent, it’s awful, would be bad for students, it would limit affordability and access,” I don’t know if that would be persuasive. And look, I see there’s value in saying it out loud even if nobody listens. I acknowledge that. But as I said in the last interview, to be tactful, I wanted to poke holes in the plan the regents were going to present, which ended up not being the way the conversation went. I don’t know if you looked at the minutes, but the staff adviser, Penny Herbert, she made a comment that was very specific to just staff issues that did not like fit the tenor of the general conversation, and no one even acknowledged her point. Maybe the staff felt better because somebody said their specific issue out loud, but it didn’t have any influence over the direction of the conversation. So anyways, look, I’m in a public position. I’m happy to be criticized — it comes with the territory. I was not upset by the initial story or the editorial. It made me feel good that people are paying attention and listening to what we’re doing as student regents, so please continue to hold my feet to the fire and make sure that at least this newspaper, the editorial writers here think that I’m advocating for students. But let me reiterate, focus on outcomes and not process. And please realize that although being vocal at regents meetings is an important part of the job, there’s many other things that are going on continuously, that I would be happy to go into detail about, that I would argue are oftentimes more influential.
JR: Okay, but in moving forward, bottom line, is it fair to say that it is your plan, maybe at the next meeting because a lot of decisions are going to be made, to be a little more vocal on the public front?
AM: I would say, I don’t think a lot of decisions are going to be made at the next meeting, we’re postponing most decisions ‘til March. So, if I’m quieter at this November meeting, I wouldn’t mistake it as like, I’m sitting out on important decisions. But yeah, I work pretty closely with Jonathan. This was kind of my relationship with Jesse Cheng too. I guess, you know, personal styles are different. Some people are much more willing to bang on the table and scream out what they think the student perspective is, and I would say I operate a little bit differently. That may not be how a lot of students would like their positions communicated. And I think Jonathan would be better at vocalizing those passion perspectives that a lot of students feel. So it would probably be a division of labor between him and I as he becomes more comfortable in the role.
JR: Do you think he will become more comfortable in the role and become more vocal in the coming months?
AM: Oh yeah, he’s a stud. He’s gonna be great, we’re really lucky to have him. He’s really hit the ground running. I think you saw at the presentation we act or work as partners. I have a little bit more experience, so I kind of know some of the nuances better. I know some of the personalities better. But he’s really dedicated to the job, and I think he has the different skill set than I do that may speak … the Daily Cal’s interest a little bit better (laughs) if I can say that tongue-in-cheek, just joking, you know what I mean? Just checking, I gotta be careful.
Sara Khan and Damian Ortellado of The Daily Californian contributed to this report.