‘Mysterious body of people’: A look into the UC governing board

Infographic showing the backgrounds of the members of the UC Board of Regents
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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The UC Board of Regents makes decisions that impact every UC student’s life — determining student tuition, approving campus developments, setting the UC system’s budget and more — yet most students across the system do not know who the regents are.

The board, which governs and sets policies for every UC campus, is made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds including higher education, real estate and entertainment, some of whom have net worths of hundreds of millions of dollars. The regent positions are unpaid.

According to Regent Richard Leib, the board does not “micromanage” each campus but oversees policy and ensures the UC system is supporting its mission.

“Ultimately, the job of governing the university falls in the hands of the regents,” said Varsha Sarveshwar, ASUC external affairs vice president and president of the UC Student Association.

Meet the regents

Those who sit on the board come from a variety of backgrounds. Regent Sherry Lansing was formerly the CEO of Paramount Pictures and is the founder of the Sherry Lansing Foundation, which supports cancer research and higher education, among other things. Regent Hadi Makarechian chaired a multibillion-dollar development company, while Regent Peter Guber, who was previously the CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, is CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group and co-owns the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Football Club. Regent Lark Park is director of the California Education Learning Lab in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

Regent Janet Reilly sits on the board of Dignity Health Foundation, a Catholic nonprofit health care organization whose partnership with the UC system has been questioned due to Dignity Health’s denial of abortions and gender-affirming care at some of its hospitals. Reilly was not available for comment, according to Anne Shaw, secretary and chief of staff to the regents.

Included in the board’s 19 voting members is one student regent. According to Student Regent-designate Jamaal Muwwakkil, whose term starts in July, part of the student regent’s job is to amplify students’ voices and act as a liaison between students and the board.

“My initial expectation was that the majority of folks would have an academic background, and that was not the case,” Muwwakkil said. “Being able to hear from a diversity of opinions and opinionalities is beneficial to everyone.”

Davon Thomas, president of UC Santa Cruz’s student government, added that because the UC system has several corporate partnerships, having regents with business backgrounds is “fine.” According to Leib, his experience as a lawyer and a businessman prepared him to understand the UC system’s budget of almost $40 billion.

Thomas, however, still advocates for more individuals with higher education backgrounds on the board.

Nuha Khalfay, the 2018-2019 ASUC external affairs vice president, said regents such as chair John Pérez have used their higher education backgrounds and their familiarity with working with students in their roles to the UC system’s benefit.

“Having regents who don’t have a higher education background means there is that lack of understanding coming into the role, and they need to work that much harder to fill that gap,” Khalfay said.

How to become a regent

Regent George Kieffer said, as a student at UC Santa Barbara in the 1960s and an alumni regent from 1978 to 1980, he never thought he would be appointed to the board as a full voting regent. After working in higher education for years with “no intention” of being a regent, Kieffer applied after being recommended to the board and was ultimately appointed by former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009.

According to Leib, the governor often looks for regents from different areas of expertise. Leib, who was on the Solana Beach School Board and the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, said he knew former California Gov. Jerry Brown for a long time, applied and was appointed in 2018.

Appointed regents are selected by the governor and serve 12-year terms. Sarveshwar alleged that there is “very little” oversight of this process. The governor’s office was contacted for comment but did not respond as of press time.

According to Khalfay, the governor is supposed to consult with an advisory committee before appointing a regent. Khalfay said, however, that the governor has historically selected regents without the committee’s input.

“It is critical that this committee be convened and listened to, as regents have significant power to shape the trajectory of the UC,” said current Student Regent Hayley Weddle in an email.

Thomas currently serves on the governor’s advisory committee for regent appointments, which according to the California Constitution, consists of the speaker of the state Assembly, the pro tem of the state Senate, multiple public members, the chair of the Board of Regents, a UC alumnus, a student and a faculty member.

According to Thomas, the advisory committee was not convened for the appointment of Reilly in August 2019, who is serving a nine-year term after Regent Ellen Tauscher died. Thomas added that he was told the committee did not convene because Reilly is filling in for a partial term. Regents are also reappointed without the committee’s input, he said.

If given the chance, Thomas said he would have brought recommendations from student groups, including the UC Student Association and the UC Graduate and Professional Council, to the committee.

“I do believe (Gov. Gavin Newsom) has that final say, but I definitely think we could have convened,” Thomas said. “I think that was taken away from students.”

The governor’s nominations for regents are approved by the state Senate, according to Sarveshwar.

She added that the Senate does not typically review nominees rigorously, and nominees sit on the Board of Regents as voting members before they are officially confirmed, which she said she does not understand.

“These are people who are wealthy and tend to not be demographically representative of the students of the UC,” Sarveshwar said.

According to Thomas, many regents historically have been large donors to the governor. He added, however, that he thinks Newsom has shifted from this practice and is a more “open and transparent” governor.

Sarveshwar added that the board is moving in a “more progressive direction,” as more women and people of color are appointed. Muwwakkil said he would like to see a regent from the Central Valley, in order to better represent California and places that the UC system is invested in, such as Merced.

Kieffer, whose term expires March 1, 2021, said he will not actively seek reappointment in order to give Newsom “total freedom” to appoint whomever he wants. Kieffer declined to say if he would accept or turn down a reappointment offer.

Students and the regents

Past student leaders had a more “adversarial” relationship with the board than students today do, and shifts in the past few years have made the regents more responsive to students, according to Sarveshwar.

“It took years to convince the Board of Regents and (UC Office of the President, or UCOP,) how necessary isolating basic needs and looking into that was,” Khalfay said. “I think that speaks to that disconnect between students and the administration.”

Most students agreed that the majority of the UC student body does not know who the regents are. When he was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara, Kieffer said, the regents were a “mysterious body of people.” 

Sarveshwar said she is supportive of regents making themselves available to students but added that it is “not students’ jobs” to be heavily involved with the regents. Khalfay also said regents should “make every effort” to learn about the average student experience and engage with a diverse range of students.

According to Sarveshwar, the most important qualities for a regent are their accessibility and how they take student comments into consideration.

“Many of us who work in student government have found that there’s not a huge correlation between a regent’s background and how good a regent they are,” Sarveshwar said. “Sometimes, these absurdly wealthy regents are the ones who care the most. … It’s ultimately who they are as people.”

According to Muwwakkil, knowing who the regents are and understanding the UC system’s organizational structure can help students focus their advocacy and keep them “active and engaged.”

In between meetings: The life of a regent

To engage with students and administration in between their regular general meetings every other month, some regents visit UC campuses.

“The first thing that almost every regent does on the board is start to visit campuses that they don’t know,” Kieffer said. “It’s impossible for anyone to know all the campuses, even if they’re well-versed.”

Kieffer said he visits campuses to learn their geography, to get to know the chancellors and the issues they face and to meet with student leadership, faculty and other community groups.

Leib, who was appointed in 2018, had a goal to visit a different campus each month before the COVID-19 pandemic halted this plan. Leib said he talks to as many student groups as he can while on the campuses.

According to Kieffer, who has been on the board for 11 years, regents tend to reduce the frequency of their campus visits as their terms progress. Kieffer said while he still visits campuses, he prioritizes reading campus news through a summary he receives every morning from UCOP, which outlines UC and higher education news and contains a couple dozen articles.

“All the regents are the same in terms of commitment to the university, but different in terms of how they contribute and the level of time they take,” Kieffer said.

Regents Meeting

Josh Jordan / File

Leib said his commitment includes chairing two UC task forces that meet frequently — the student mental health task force and the innovation transfer and entrepreneurism task force.

Weddle said in an email that she serves on several task forces and committees outside regents meetings, including the Special Committee to Consider the Selection of a President. Weddle added that she also meets with individual regents and students.

The number of committees each regent serves on varies. Makarechian serves on five committees, while Guber serves on two. Regent Charlene Zettel is a member of seven committees — the most of any regent with the exception of the chair.

What could come next

Leib said he thinks the board’s focus in the upcoming months should be on the impacts of COVID-19. According to Leib, the pandemic has caused the university to take major financial hits as campus and hospital operations have been reduced. UC President Janet Napolitano said in a webinar April 30 that the UC system lost $600 million in March, the majority of which was lost through reduced revenue and increased costs for hospitals and campus refunds.

Sarveshwar echoed Leib’s sentiment that the UC system is in a “very difficult spot” financially and said during the April 22 ASUC meeting that the state should do more to help the UC system cover costs.

According to Sarveshwar, students are struggling with affordability, and she said the regents should take a more “aggressive stance” with regard to affordability for non-California residents.

I would like to see them be a much louder advocate for students, regardless of their residency status,” Sarveshwar said.

Muwwakkil said he hopes to advocate for transfer students and to draw attention to ethnoracial inequities when he comes into office as student regent.

Outreach from the board to students is important, according to Thomas. He added that he would like to see the board support students in their lobbying of legislators and be more open to criticism and recommendations.

“It’s never been a doubt in my mind that there are good people on there,” Thomas said. “I just think they need to be able to use their influence a lot more to support students. Why else do you want to be on the Board of Regents, if not to support the UC system and students?”

Maya Akkaraju is the lead higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that alumni regents are nonvoting members of the UC Board of Regents. In fact, alumni regents serve one year as nonvoting members and one year as voting members of the board.