Faces of Berkeley: Jonathan Stein, the next student regent

Student Regent-designate emphasizes student engagement, activism

Sarina Kernberg/Staff

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To say Jonathan Stein has a daunting task ahead of him would be putting it lightly.

On June 30, Stein will assume his role as the next voting student member on the UC Board of Regents, charged with representing over 222,000 students, making decisions for a system plagued with dwindling state support, rising fees and governance issues — all of which Stein has begun to tackle through a unique focus on student engagement and activism.

In the past year, Stein has spent his time as Student Regent-designate by participating in meetings without voting power, engaging with students as well as politicians, lobbyists and regents, and developing programs to address his top priorities — funding, fees and campus climate.

“The number one issue for the student regent is without question funding and fees,” Stein said. “I’m hugely supportive of every action at the state Capitol, even protests at regents meetings, and I’m really a firm believer that we need to apply pressure to every pressure point.”

This May, Stein and current Student Regent Alfredo Mireles Jr. will rally in Sacramento along with the rest of the board to support public education. Stein has been a frequent presence among student protesters, focusing his energy on a hands-on approach.

In the last year, Stein has also begun to address his second priority of improving campus environments for underrepresented minorities and students of color.

UNITE, a UC systemwide steering committee that he is creating alongside UC Student Association Undergraduate Chair Patrick Manh Le, will bring together student leaders across the 10 campuses to share failures and successes in creating open campuses, as well as providing a space for students to strategize around systemwide policy changes.

Moving forward, Stein will likely continue in his efforts to engage students through increased use of social media. He said one of his greatest strengths is working with student leaders and involving others in the fight to preserve public higher education — perhaps a difference from his predecessors.

“Alfredo is incredibly personable and can make friends with everyone,” he said. “I don’t have a chummy relationship with all that many of (the regents) … I’d like to think that there is still a working relationship built on respect there that will serve me well, but I guess only time will tell.”

Mireles said Stein is highly “policy-focused” and would read policy briefings constantly if given the time. He is less focused on “schmoozing” and prefers to win over others through logical reasoning.

“Jonathan thinks with his incredibly strong ability to reason that he can win every argument,” Mireles said. “He thinks if you talk to the strongest Occupy Cal protester, if you use data and reason, you can win them over.”

Before beginning his tenure as a UC Berkeley graduate student and Student Regent-designate, Stein attended both public and private schools and delved into politics.

A biracial student and Bay Area native, Stein grew up in what he called a “crazy diverse area.”

He immersed himself in an entirely different environment as an undergraduate at Harvard, which he now calls “the most private, private school” where he said he never heard the term “social justice.”

While at Harvard, Stein occasionally wrote for a literary magazine and broadcasted sports on the radio, but other than that said he was a “really regular student” without the toolset to delve into many of the political issues that now consume his life.

“Harvard when I was there was a place that cared an awful lot about prestige and reputation and maintaining an alumni donor base which it’s very good at, but not terribly concerned with undergraduate quality of life, and not terribly concerned with undergraduate quality of education,” he said.

While his original plan was to spend time toiling away at the next great American novel, Stein said the realization that no one would pay him to do so prompted him to dedicate his time to working as an intern and eventual campaign correspondent at Mother Jones, a political publication.

After deciding to go back to school to work on his longtime goal of fixing what he calls California’s broken government, Stein said that the opportunity to earn a dual law and public policy degree while returning to his public school California roots made UC Berkeley the obvious choice.

Six weeks before Stein set foot in his law or policy classes, he approached administrators at the Goldman School of Public Policy to start Berkeley Common Cause, a chapter of the Common Cause political organization working towards greater transparency in government. In its first year, Stein’s club worked on legislative efforts and campaigned for Proposition 25, a bill that would allow a majority vote to pass the California state budget.

Aryndel Lamb-Marsh, Berkeley Common Cause’s current president, said that as leader of the club, Stein was “unusually driven and energetic, and that came across at every meeting.”

Although Stein’s schedule now has him working more than 12 hour days and traveling throughout the state, he still tries to attend bi-weekly meetings and support the club. After a year of being Berkeley Common Cause’s president, Stein served on the board of the UC Student Association, where he learned about the opportunity of becoming the next student regent.

While he has gotten his foot in the door working on the issues he cares about, he knows the road ahead will be a challenge.

“You come in with this fully formed agenda of things that you want to do, and then immediately you are knocked off course by the events of the day,” Stein said. “There are no agendas anymore, everything is out the window. Student activism has exploded and it has wiped clean the agenda.”

Jessica Rossoni covers higher education.