On a board composed of some of the most powerful men and women in California — successful executives and administrators, the UC president and the state governor — there sits one student with a vote equal to that of each of the other 25 members.

The student regent occupies a unique role on the UC Board of Regents, the independent governing body of the University of California. As the only voting student on a board sometimes criticized for being divorced from the student experience, the student regent must strike a careful balance between representing the student body and being faithful to the best interests of the university.

Like the other members of the board, the student regent is a trustee, meaning he or she is not elected by the student body. In theory, students’ voices should rarely conflict with the interests of the university — but in practice, student opinion can differ greatly from the board’s decisions on issues such as tuition and fees, administrative compensation, divestment and affirmative action.

At the November meeting of the board, UC Berkeley student and current Student Regent Sadia Saifuddin spoke passionately against a proposed tuition increase, drawing on her own experience working multiple jobs — sacrificing grades and leadership positions — in order to pay her tuition.

Still, the proposal passed by a 14-7 vote, raising questions about the influence of the student regent’s voice, even when the board discusses issues that directly affect the student population. Saifuddin, 23, is almost 40 years younger than the rest of the regents, who average 62 years of age.

In July, UCLA senior Avi Oved will take Saifuddin’s place as a voting member of the board. He will be the only student voting on the board’s discussions of issues affecting the university’s more than 230,000 students.

Oved, like the 40 students who have sat on the board before him, will face a question without an easy answer: When student regents cast their vote, are they representatives of the students or trustees of the UC system?

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Carol Mock, the first student regent
Michael Hill/Daily Cal Archives

After the revolution

In the wake of tensions between students and administrators at UC campuses in the 1960s, the California Legislature proposed in 1974 a referendum that would amend the section of the state constitution concerning the UC Board of Regents. The referendum, Proposition 4, would allow the regents to appoint one student and one faculty member to the board to serve terms, at least one year in length, as regents with full voting rights.

Not everyone agreed with this idea, as the board’s powers are formidable and far reaching.

“Obviously, students and faculty should have input to the Board, as they now do, but giving them a vote on policy and personnel decisions … is unwarranted,” wrote John Stull, then a state senator, in the 1974 California voters pamphlet. “The University is a $1.1 billion corporation with extensive contracts with the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission. … The placement of a one-year term voting student or faculty member on its board of directors is surely an unwise policy.”

Yet, Proposition 4 passed with about 55 percent of the popular vote. Faculty decided against the appointment of a faculty regent, according to John Aubrey Douglass, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, because they felt one vote could never capture faculty members’ diverse interests. Today, nonvoting faculty representatives sit on the board.

The students, however, seized the opportunity, and in 1975, UC Santa Barbara senior Carol Mock became the first voting student on the board.

In 1975, we were coming out of a period of enormous conflict between the students and the university. There were frequent demonstrations on campus … about a lot of fairly contentious issues. (The position of student regent) was a way of trying to institutionalize legitimate channels for student input to the board.

Nobody knew how this was going to work out. There was not much precedent for it. The slate was really blank.

A friend of mine, who was an activist, said to me, “You know, this is not a revolution,” and I said, “No — it’s what comes after the revolution.”

— Carol Mock, 1975-76 student regent, to The Daily Californian

According to a 2010 survey by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, about 71 percent of American public institutions now have at least one student board member, while only about 20 percent of private institutions have a student seat.

As is the case in most states — according to Sarah Elfreth’s guide for student board members, “The Young Guardians” — the UC student regent is not elected by students. Instead, the candidate is chosen through an extensive selection process.

After a paper-application screening, two nominating commissions — one for the northern and one for the southern campuses — recommend five candidates each. The 10 are interviewed by the Board of Directors of the UC Student Association, which cuts the pool to three students. Those three candidates are then forwarded to a special committee of the UC Board of Regents, which makes the final decision.

The selected student serves one year as a student regent-designate, attending board meetings without voting privileges in order to become familiar with the position. After this period, he or she serves one year, beginning July 1, as a student regent with full voting rights. During both years, the selected student’s tuition and fees are waived.

But most don’t do it for the money.

Michael Salerno, the third student regent Rick Gough/Daily Cal Archives

Michael Salerno, the third student regent
Rick Gough/Daily Cal Archives

A universe unto itself

Most regents on the board are appointed by the state governor and traditionally take their seats after successful careers in business, politics or finance. Some are extremely wealthy, and most are well connected: The position of UC regent is “the most sought-after gubernatorial appointment after the Supreme Court,” according to Michael Salerno, the 1977-78 student regent and a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law.

To be a young student with access to a world of politics and power far beyond one’s years is “heady stuff,” Salerno added. In 1975, when Mock became the student regent, she was catapulted into a sort of celebrity, landing on the “front page of every newspaper in California,” Mock said.

At the time, it was extremely visible. I remember walking into a bank in Berkeley, and I reached for my ID, and the teller said, “That’s OK, I know who you are.”

To move from completely anonymous to a face people recognized, to have access and suddenly be on a level of equality with these pretty impressive people — public servants and civil leaders and household names … it was an amazing experience.

— Carol Mock, 1975-76 student regent, to The Daily Californian

Though Mock’s successors may not have received the same amount of attention, it is precisely the media coverage that lends real power to the student regent, Saifuddin said. One vote on a board of 26 members is less effective than the ability to make the regents feel as though they’re in the “hot seat,” she added.

Oved echoed that opinion. Though the student regent “has never played a swing-vote role,” he said, “the power of the position is … access and immediacy to decision makers.”

These weren’t just run-of-the-mill appointees. One appointee on the board was William French Smith … who was serving as a regent while he was the attorney general of the United States under president Reagan.

Another board member was William Wilson. Insiders described him as Ronald Reagan’s best friend.

— David Neuman, 1981-82 student regent, to The Daily Californian

But those close relationships can confuse some students, who, at times, see the regents as their enemies.

“On the UC recruitment tour, we had to clarify that we as student regents are not an extension of the board, the Office of the President or Napolitano,” Oved said. “We are our own entity. We have a constituency to answer to, and that’s the student constituency.”

Though some student regents take pains to maintain distance between themselves and the rest of the board, the position, according to Salerno, came with its perks: “They wine and dine you, keep you amused and wowed.”

“You’re rolling with these people in a universe unto itself,” he said. “The UC thinks it’s its own empire — and in a sense, it is.”

Here’s a moment I’ll always remember. There was a very gracious, distinguished regent from the old school named Edward Carter. He had been a regent for something like 30 years. He was an extremely smart guy, very wealthy and gave millions to the university.

I had lunch with him, and he looked at me and said, “David, in the old days, to be a regent in California was our state’s equivalent of the knighthood.”

And he said it to me very seriously, so I didn’t lose the significance of what he was saying.

— David Neuman, 1981-82 student regent, to The Daily Californian

Michael Hill/Daily Cal Archives

Protest at the May 1977 regents meeting
Michael Hill/Daily Cal Archives

Pushback and pressure

Over the years, the relationship between the student regent and the rest of the board has varied dramatically depending on the issues at hand. Contentious topics, such as tuition and fees, can create a conflict of interest for the student regent, whose peers and friends may be protesting the very meeting in which they’re participating.

Student trustees must manage pressure from the student body to “perform in a strictly delegate capacity,” which can result in “identity crises and frustration,” according to Elfreth.

One of my friends was arrested at one of the board meetings because he wanted the university to stop investing in coal, and here I am sitting on the board, thinking, “Come on, come on — you don’t have to get arrested!”

At moments like that, I am so glad students are out there putting pressure on the regents. If they didn’t do that, then fees would rise at much faster rates, and the university would really become elitist and inaccessible.

— D’Artagnan Scorza, 2008-09 student regent, to The Daily Californian

In addition, the student regent serves only one year as a voting member of the board, whereas governor-appointed regents serve 12-year terms. The designate period is intended to allow the student regent to “establish a foundation” and “build credibility,” according to Oved. Still, the position is sometimes criticized because of its short term length.

“It’s very difficult to become effective as a student regent when you have such a short term of office,” Neuman said. “I don’t think I was very effective, because I didn’t understand how the system worked.”

The interpersonal dynamics of the board can complicate the position further. Though conversation is usually civil, it can be difficult for the student regent to enter a board “with lots of personalities, very big personalities,” Douglass said.

In 1995, when the board voted to end affirmative action in the university’s admissions process, 1995-96 student regent Edward Gomez “was a very vocal dissenter,” according to his successor, Jess Bravin. Gomez would boycott regents banquets and stand in solidarity with protesters outside meetings, Bravin said, which created “bad blood.”

When I was on the board, the politically appointed regents were very hostile to the student-regent position.

At my first meeting, Regent Glenn Campbell motioned to abolish the position entirely. I called him up and said, “I can’t help but take this personally,” and he said, “It’s nothing personal. I just don’t think it’s good for the university. We’ll have it take effect after your term expires.”

And I said, “I like the idea that I would be such a hard act to follow, but I don’t think that’s satisfactory to me.”

In fact, throughout my term, I got a great deal of pushback and … pressure from the appointed regents, partly because I was not in agreement with the policy directions they had chosen for the university.

— Jess Bravin, 1996-97 student regent, to The Daily Californian

In 2000, the state Legislature passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 89, intended to “recognize, commend, and celebrate the contributions of the office of the Student Regent of the University of California, and of the twenty-five students who have held the office over its life.”

Bravin said he helped author the legislation, intended to act as “armor” in case “another Glenn Campbell tried to attack the student-regent position.”

Although some regents have been indifferent or even hostile toward the student-regent position, some take a particular interest in the youngest member of the board.

One of Reagan’s friends … called me and offered me a ride down to the meeting … so we could spend three hours in the car together.

So we’re sailing down there in his Mercedes, and he says, “I never expected to like the student regent, and I found out you’re just a person.”

— Carol Mock, 1975-76 student regent, to The Daily Californian

Michael Hill/Daily Cal Archives

Michael Salerno, 1977-78 student regent — second from the right seated at the table — at the September 1977 regents meeting
Michael Hill/Daily Cal Archives

For the people of the state

The student regent is officially a trustee like the rest of the board members, not an elected student representative. But that line can sometimes become blurred, especially given the leading role students play in the selection process. Though not elected by a student vote, the student regent is chosen from three candidates provided by the UCSA, a coalition of student governments — a dynamic that is somewhat particular to the UC system, according to Mock.

In most states, “if the student is on (the board) as a representative of students and appointed by students, they do not have a vote,” she said, while in the UC system, “students have tremendous input” in narrowing the pool to three candidates.

According to UCSA board chair Kevin Sabo, while both the UCSA and the student regent represent student interests, the student regents — because they are selected rather than elected — have a “more indirect type of accountability.”

Though the student regent and UCSA agree on most issues, he added, there are exceptions: He cited Senate Constitutional Amendment 1, a bill that would limit the board’s autonomy from the state Legislature. While UCSA lobbied in support of the bill, Saifuddin and Oved publicly declared their opposition.

Historically, the student regent has made decisions “that can be read as being against students’ interests but (that) are in the institution’s interests,” said Maria Ledesma, 2006-07 student regent.

At the end of the ’80s, the state was supporting the university really well, and everything was pretty lovely. But we were coming into a time that turned out not to be so lovely.

The state was cutting back seriously on funding to the college, and so the only source of revenue that the board could come up with to support a proposal to give more grants and financial aid to low-income and underserved students was through raising tuition. I voted in favor of that, and it was not popular.

In the end, I thought it was best for the students, but students were so mad at me. I had to be escorted by police to my vehicle (after a board meeting) so I wouldn’t be attacked by students — because I took it seriously to do what was best for the people of the state.

— Diana Darnell, 1991-92 student regent, to The Daily Californian

Students’ interests are broad and varied, however, and over the years, some have proposed adding one or more additional student regents to the board to better represent the diversity of the university’s student body. Oved said that in his efforts to increase shared governance of the university, he would have liked to implement another student-regent position.

But adding another student to the board would require an amendment to the state constitution and a “full-fledged campaign with millions of dollars,” he said. Instead, he hopes to add a seat for a nonvoting “student adviser” chosen to complement the perspective of the student regent.

“At the end of day, I could have spent my two-year term entirely on that and come up short,” Oved said. “The question was: Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

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Current Student Regent Sadia Saifuddin and current Student Regent-Designate Avi Oved at the July 2014 regents meeting
Lorenz Angelo Gonzalez/File

Students first

In 1975, Mock saw herself as a regent with a student perspective, coexisting with but wholly distinct from elected student government. She said she thought it was the job of those elected student representatives to speak for students.

“I believed what voters wanted, what regents wanted and what I thought was good for the position was to be on the board as a trustee,” Mock said.

But 40 years and 40 student regents later, the distinction between trustee and representative is no longer as clear. While Saifuddin said her two years on the board have been a “constant on-and-off switch, navigating between … trustee and representative,” she was adamant that her “loyalty lies with students.”

The last meeting of Saifuddin’s term is this month, and come July, Oved will have to decide for himself whether he will spend the next year voting as a representative or as a trustee. On a board that sometimes acts as a “giant rubber stamp,” according to Bravin, Oved’s answer could shape future dialogue on critical issues of tuition, sexual assault and executive compensation.

Saifuddin was clear, however, that she would like her successor to be a student representative.

“I told Avi that our job is to represent students,” Saifuddin said. “It’s not to make the university look better; it’s not to make administrators look better; it’s not to go to administrators first. It is always to put students first.”

Sahil Chinoy is the lead higher education reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @sahilchinoy_dc.

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  • thompson_richard

    Avi Oved? The mother of a UC student made statewide headlines last weekend because “nudity was required” in her daughter’s art performance class. But California’s foremost public university is a good place to bare all. The class wasn’t a departmental requirement. Larry Yelowitz writes (May 14th, San Jose Mercury News) “if a Jewish student is harmed by these [Israel-divestment] activities” then the “cowardly administrators” will bear the heavy financial lost [as the result of a lawsuit, perhaps]. UC Regents already arrange academic quarter vacations around Jewish holidays, presumably for the convenience of Jewish students. So much so that Zev Hurwitz — the editor of a campus general-circulation newspaper The UCSD Guardian– said he preferred the Regents would leave well-enough alone. Capt. Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, a Muslim United States military chaplain, on Oct. 11, 2001 participated in a memorial service at the Pentagon for those killed in the 9/11 attack, reading from the Koran to the effect that there is no conflict between being a loyal soldier and a loyal Muslim: “The prophet said when we see evil action we are compelled to change it with our hand, challenge it with our tongue or at least hate it in our heart.” This was appropriate because — in his chaplaincy — a chaplain should minister to all faiths. Some administrators on a few UC campuses went so far as to arrange kosher and hallal “get togethers.” This was inappropriate, dumb, and dumber. P.S. We need a new UC Berkeley/Technion West campus like we need a torn cornea.