Up to now, there have been two formal avenues of communication to the UC Board of Regents open to students ““ there is a Student Regent and there are times reserved at Regents meetings for public comments in which students can speak (along with anyone else). However, neither of these avenues has been particularly effective. The Student Regent is one on a large board and serves only briefly. At the public comment sessions, communication is limited to two to three minutes per speaker and is entirely one-way; the Regents do not respond to what is said or ask questions of public participants. Moreover, the public comment sessions are often forums for venting, for rambling presentations, and for speakers who think insulting the Regents will produce positive outcomes.
Thanks to the pepper-spray incident at UC Davis last fall, the Chair of the Board of Regents, Sherry Lansing, has expressed an interest in widening communication with students. But public forums are generally not the place to have meaningful conversations; there is too much temptation to grandstand for the wider audience. I would instead favor small private group meetings with selected Regents. Here are some common-sense rules that should guide any such events.
First, it behooves students who meet with Regents to inform themselves about the basic institutions of the state and the UC system. What is the role of the Regents in the state constitution? How are budgets for the state made? What is the role of Regents and the UC administration in the budget process? What part of the UC budget comes from the state and what comes from other sources? What is the relation between the overall UC budget allocation received from the state and the funding received at the campus level? The more students who meet with Regents seem to be informed about these very basic matters, the more likely it is that Regents will be willing to listen to the students’ opinions.
Second, who are the Regents as individuals? If students meet with a Regent or group of Regents, they should find out something of their background and interests. Some Regents are more active on the Board than others. It should also be noted that being a Regent is not typically the day job of members of the Board. There are official biographies of Regents on the Board’s website, but asking Regents in person about what they do, how they were appointed, and what being a Regent entails will demonstrate an interest in what they think and the gesture is likely to be reciprocated.
Third, useful conversations with Regents will not be facilitated by lists of demands, particularly “non-negotiable” demands. That approach will quickly shut down any possibility of dialogue; it is ultimately why the public comment sessions at Regents meetings are so ineffective. The purpose of student conversations with Regents is to communicate concerns and obtain responses. Students who meet with Regents should have an organized plan of what they want to discuss. They may find areas of mutual agreement, but they also need to be prepared to agree-to-disagree with the Regents they meet.
My sense is that the Regents will become more open to informal forums with students if the meetings Lansing is currently holding seem productive. If they simply duplicate the previous public comment sessions at Regents meetings, however, the experiment will be short-lived.
I opposed the cancellation of the originally scheduled November UC Board of Regents meeting. There was a massive mobilization planned for that meeting that I believe would have really communicated student discontent and frustration to the Regents. The students’ right to protest is sacred and should never be impinged upon; I felt cancelling the meeting, and having a teleconference instead, did just that. Frustrated but undaunted, many students (myself included) went to Sacramento and protested at the state Capitol that day instead. It wasn’t exactly what we wanted, but the state deserves as much, if not more, protesting than the Regents do.
Before the UC Davis pepper- spray incident occurred, Regent Sherry Lansing, the Chair of the Board of Regents, had already committed to extending public comment from the usual 15 to 20 minutes to at least an hour. She believed that having the meeting at the four sites would give more students the opportunity to directly address the Regents, or at least some of the Regents, since we were scattered at four different campuses. Public comment went on for almost two hours and dozens of students got to speak their mind, including students who would not have been able to make it to the originally scheduled meeting. Many people were heard, but still not enough.
What is still missing, despite all of these efforts, is a true understanding of what it means to be an undergraduate at UCLA or another UC campus in 2012. Many Regents look to their time as undergraduates to inform their decisions on what is best for today’s students. Thirty years ago, when many Regents were undergraduates, the UC was practically free. Back then, there were entry-level jobs for new graduates with the promise of a successful and stable career path upon graduation. This comfortable reality is not true for the students of today. Tuition continues to rise and there are fewer and fewer jobs for new graduates and even less stable career paths. Thus, having one meeting with a group of students is not going to be enough to truly understand what it really means to be a student today.
Regents must seek continual and real relationships with students that help them understand the complexities of students’ lives. How does being the first in one’s family to go to college influence the decisions a student makes? What does it mean for a student’s college experience if her parents don’t speak English? How does a student feel if his parents don’t want their children moving away from home to attend a UC because of long-held family traditions? These questions linger in many students’ minds and can be more important to students than the threat of a tuition increase.
Ultimately, when Regents make decisions on behalf of students, they must have specific knowledge of what that actually means for students; with each vote they should be able to think of how it will affect actual students they know personally. Until that happens, the Regents need to be working non-stop to better understand who students really are and what it means to be a student today.
While the UC Board of Regents have increased their efforts to meet and discuss issues with students, it is unclear what these conversations can accomplish. On the one hand, most of the voting Regents have gotten their positions because they supported conservative politicians dedicated to cutting taxes and defunding public institutions. On the other, while the Regents blame the UC’s budget problems on the state, they fail to look at how the UC has decided on its own to begin to pursue a process of privatization.
Unless we change how Regents are appointed, we will be stuck with a group of political backers who have no background in education. What we need is bold leadership and a new commitment to make instruction and pure research the main focus of the university. Instead of spending needed funds on new facilities and more administrators, the UC should focus on providing quality undergraduate education by reducing class sizes and hiring more full-time faculty committed to quality education. The university also needs to ease its dependence on graduate student instructors while still fully funding them.
In the case of UCLA, we have seen a major increase in undergraduate enrollments, but very few new faculty positions have been added. This means that classes and sections are getting bigger, and fewer students are graduating in four years. To correct this situation, UCLA should use undergraduate tuition dollars to hire more professors dedicated to teaching undergraduate courses. Furthermore, the university should give up on the idea that online courses will solve all of its problems. Students come to be taught in person by qualified faculty members, and a move to distance education would only hurt the reputation of the system as it downgrades the quality of instruction. Students and faculty need to demand that instruction and research are protected as we seek increased funding from the state.