When the University of California Board of Regents was created 150 years ago, legislators presciently wrote that the regents were meant to keep the UC independent of political influence. What they forgot to add in, however, was a clause to remove unfit regents – or at least hold them accountable.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 3299, the largest union in the University, is calling on California lawmakers to amend the state’s constitution to give legislators the power to remove regents with a two-thirds majority. The motivations for this are worthy: Regents appointed by the governor serve 12-year terms and there are no laws to remove them from the board, and thus no real means for holding fire to their feet.
Handing over the gavel to legislators, however, is a dangerous suggestion. The UC has been forced to play to state politicians’ tunes to secure what little state funding it gets, and it’s hard to see legislators refraining from intimidating university administrators to serve their special interests should they be given the power to remove regents.
A better constitutional amendment would be to give the board more power to discipline and, if necessary, expel its members. Such a provision would maintain the political independence of the university while giving regents the teeth to hold each other accountable.
AFSCME’s proposal arose from calls for Regent Norman Pattiz’s resignation following sexual misconduct allegations against him in 2016. Pattiz, an executive chairman at a radio company, remained a university regent for more than a year despite a released audio recording of him asking a former employee if he could hold her breasts. He announced his intention to resign late in December, though he claimed his decision was not connected to allegations against him.
Students made clear on numerous occasions that the University should have done more to investigate and penalize Pattiz for failing to uphold its values. And it was clear that fellow board members disapproved of Pattiz’s actions on both a personal and professional level.
For example, Monica Lozano, the board’s chair, proposed members’ private actions also be fair grounds for disciplinary action when they fail to uphold the University’s ethical guidelines. But while that measure passed, the regents did not take any notable action against Pattiz, except for him having to undergo standard sexual assault prevention training. The UC community was lucky Pattiz decided to resign, but there’s no telling whether student demonstrations will be enough to oust regents who misbehave in the future.
An amendment allowing regents to vote out each other, however, provides that guarantee.
Of course, it might seem regents would be hesitant to discipline each other and that state legislators should be the ones to make those decisions. However, the UC’s autonomy hinges on the regents’ autonomy. If regents choose not to hold each other accountable, students, staff and publications will make that known to them loud and clear. Allowing state legislators to call the shots, however, opens up a can of worms that neither the UC nor the state of California will be able to recover from.
As arbiters of a public trust, the regents must reflect not only the people’s interests, but also the university’s values of nurturing a diverse academic community. It only makes sense that their peers should be able to properly – and effectively – reprimand them should they fail in doing so.