‘A great honor’: George Kieffer, Charlene Zettel reflect on terms as UC regents

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Josh Jordan/File
George Kieffer and Charlene Zettel served on the UC Board of Regents for 12 years prior to retiring in March. They began their terms amid the 2008 financial crisis.

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Beginning their terms as the UC system emerged from the financial crisis of 2008 and ending amid a pandemic, George Kieffer and Charlene Zettel retired from the UC Board of Regents in March after a 12-year career.

Zettel, a California resident, has spent her career in health care, government, nonprofits and more. Holding a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene, Zettel practiced for about 20 years.

Image of Zettel

Charlene Zettel

Her long list of career accomplishments includes serving on the Poway Unified School District Board of Education, representing the 75th district in the California State Assembly, working as director of the California Department of Consumer Affairs and becoming CEO of the nonprofit organization Donate Life California.

“I had a varied career,” Zettel said. “I’ve had the fortune of being in the right place at the right time, always saying ‘yes’ to opportunity and ‘yes’ to challenges.”

Kieffer earned his bachelor’s degree and J.D. in the UC system and previously served as an alumni regent, according to the UC Board of Regents website. He has spent his career practicing law, as well as immersing himself in government and composing orchestral music.

Among other accomplishments, Kieffer helped write the Los Angeles city charter and served as president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. Keiffer said he never expected to be appointed regent by former California gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger but felt prepared to contribute.

“I’ve been able to serve and contribute in a way I’ve wanted to contribute without suffering the slings and arrows of elected office,” Kieffer said. “This, in my mind, was the capstone on a public service career, and I was going to do my darndest to do my best.”

Zettel’s term began with the board addressing the 2008 financial crisis and deep budget cuts from the state. She described one of her first meetings as “frightening,” with thousands of protesters surrounding the building while the board was asked to approve an 11% tuition hike.

Throughout the last 12 years, Zettel touted the board’s ability to tackle fiscal challenges. She added that through increased philanthropy and advocacy, the UC system has created a “very robust” student aid package.

“Trying to keep tuition increases at bay has been a major accomplishment,” Zettel said. “Going forward, it will be a real challenge to face the necessity of increased costs in everything we do and figure out a way that prudently addresses our budget and yet, doesn’t harm the students and prospective students.”

Image of Kieffer

George Kieffer

During his career as a regent, Kieffer said he is most proud of the board’s increased engagement with the UC community and the broader public, particularly during his term as chair of the board from 2017 to 2019. Working to kindle relationships in the UC, Kieffer added that he strove to be an advisor and counselor to campus chancellors.

Zettel’s personal accomplishments on the board include serving on several search committees, which she found rewarding. As chair of the compliance and audit committee, Zettel said she improved internal reporting to the regents and heightened the rigor and transparency of the audit process.

Above all, Zettel said the UC system’s most significant achievement has been managing the COVID-19 pandemic and shifting to online classes rapidly. Zettel added that throughout her term, she has seen engagement from the board grow.

“It’s a double-edged sword — we are not supposed to run the university either,” Zettel said. “The regents have to walk that fine line of accountability and direction but not direct management over UC operations.”

During the last decade, Kieffer noted that the board has become more sensitive to issues of diversity, inclusion and access. He added that the university has taken on more of a role in housing and “student welfare.”

Moving forward, Zettel said the board will need to work with a budget that is “skin and bone,” provide increased mental health care for students and strike a balance between online and in-person education.

“(Regents) take their duty very seriously and are very dedicated to the University of California,” Zettel said. “Their biggest challenge is balancing the needs of the immediate with the needs of the future.”

Zettel said she is looking forward to traveling and spending time with family while continuing to chair the board of the American Red Cross in two California counties and engage with the UC system.

In his next phase, Kieffer said he will continue to follow the university and increase focus on his music career. He added that he hopes and expects the board will maintain the university’s high caliber research and teaching.

“I did as good a job as I could have done, and I don’t feel regrets or a loss,” Kieffer said. “It was a great honor, and it’s a great university.”

Contact Maya Akkaraju at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.