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Beyond Bruin Walk: UC Board of Regents needs reform to ensure better representation

(Emily Dembinski/Illustrations director)

By Sabrina Huang and Jake Brophy

Oct. 9, 2020 5:05 p.m.

Bruins are faced with everyday issues that extend past the immediate confines of their Westwood campus. Daily Bruin Opinion provides the latest commentary on California state and nationwide issues that go far “Beyond Bruin Walk.”

The University of California’s governing board is embroiled in yet another controversy.

And at this point, it’s hard to say we’re surprised.

A recent state audit of the UC’s admissions found a member of the Board of Regents penned an “inappropriate letter of support” that led to the acceptance of an applicant on UC Berkeley’s waiting list. Richard Blum, who was later confirmed to be the regent in question, said he could not recall the incident when asked by The Mercury News.

This unsettling abuse of power is just the latest mishap in the Board’s long history of mismanagement.

During a November 2019 regent meeting, Rebecca Ora, a UC Santa Cruz graduate student, accused Regent George Kieffer of groping her thigh at a 2014 dinner. A June independent investigation cleared him of the accusation.

In 2017, a San Francisco Chronicle investigation found former President Janet Napolitano’s office approved more than $225,000 worth of reimbursements for dinners attended by regents between 2012 and 2017. This was in direct violation of university policies.

We can no longer deny what’s been staring us in the face for years: university leadership isn’t working.

Rather than turn a blind eye to the regents’ gross negligence, the California State Legislature needs to take a more active role in holding the board accountable and aligning it to the population it’s meant to serve – students. This must begin, at the very least, with term limits and greater oversight. The regents may have forgotten the immense responsibility that comes with leadership, but legislators would do good to remember they are elected officials tasked with upholding the law.

The Board of Regents is composed of seven standing members, one student regent and eighteen appointed regents who implement university policies and decide on financial matters such as tuition. Its responsibilities are far from simple – and the board’s flawed organization certainly doesn’t help.

For one, students have little to no say in who gets to serve on the board. The governor has the sole power to select regents, while state senators either approve or disapprove the nomination.

This may be tolerable if appointed regents serve four-year or even six-year terms, but these officials serve for 12 years.

And that’s assuming they aren’t reappointed.

Blum, for example, joined the Board in 2002. After Governor Jerry Brown renewed his appointment in 2014, Blum will now serve until 2026 – more than two decades since he was first appointed.

In contrast, the student regent, who is the Board’s sole student voice, serves just one year.

It should come as little surprise then that the Board has fallen out of touch with the changing times. Students have fought tooth and nail against a relentless stream of tuition hikes following the 2008 recession. In February, UCSC graduate students went on strike to demand a cost of living adjustment only to be met with armed officers and termination threats. Activists across the UC have called on campuses to defund or abolish UCPD for months to minimal acknowledgment.

Shorter terms and term limits can introduce new perspectives to the board that better speak to students’ realities. Less time may also prevent the same officials from recklessly wielding their power without fear of punishment.

And it’s not like this idea is new. Following a 2017 audit that revealed the Board tucked away an undisclosed $175 million surplus, former Senator Ed Hernandez introduced an amendment to shorten regents’ terms to four years. The proposal never passed.

It also doesn’t help that state law lacks instruction on who should or shouldn’t be a regent. According to California’s constitution, regents must be “broadly reflective of the economic, cultural and social diversity of the State.” Such vague language may help explain why an entertainment mogul sits on the Health Services Committee and the former chairman of an elite real estate company chairs the Finance and Capital Strategies Committee.

Terms and qualifications aside, the true problem with the Board is this: it’s far too powerful for its own good.

Based on legal language alone, the Board of Regents is largely free from state control. Article 9, Section IX of the California Constitution establishes the Board as a “corporation” that has the “full powers of organization and government.” This, in no uncertain terms, absolves the Regents of accountability and gives them the freedom to operate with relative impunity.

That being said, regents can be removed with a majority vote of the board. But only the president of the University or the chair of the Board – two positions students have little avenue to reach – can initiate the formal removal process.

The regents have proven time and again they are unfit to lead. Increased oversight from the state is more than justified, if not essential. Reforming an institution that has steered the UC for more than a century is surely no easy task – and it’s unreasonable to expect it to be.

But when the system is clearly broken, there’s no excuse not to change it.

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Sabrina Huang | Opinion editor
Huang is the 2021-2022 Opinion editor. She was previously a 2020-2021 assistant Opinion editor and an opinion columnist. She is also a third-year public affairs student at UCLA.
Huang is the 2021-2022 Opinion editor. She was previously a 2020-2021 assistant Opinion editor and an opinion columnist. She is also a third-year public affairs student at UCLA.
Jake Brophy | Opinion senior staff
Brophy was the 2020-2021 assistant opinion editor. He was previously an opinion columnist for the 2019-2020 school year. He is also a third year political science major.
Brophy was the 2020-2021 assistant opinion editor. He was previously an opinion columnist for the 2019-2020 school year. He is also a third year political science major.
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