Meet the UC Regents

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Editor's Note: This is the first in a five-part series examining the UC Board of Regents.

Some of the most dramatic decisions in California history have been made by 26 people who meet bimonthly at an oval-shaped table in San Francisco.

These 26 people are known as the UC Board of Regents, and are charged with managing the UC system, an institution widely known as one of the largest and most prestigious public university systems in the world.

Under bylaws outlined in the California constitution, the UC regents serve as the governing board of the 10-campus institution.

The board, which has been in operation since 1868, consists of 26 members - seven ex officio members, 18 members appointed by the governor of California and one student regent appointed by the regents.

Primarily, the responsibilities of regents involve being trustees for the state of California. They are required to make decisions and policies concerning the university that are in the best interest of both the UC system and the state of California.

"We are charged as a board with full responsibility with every aspect of the university's operations," says Regent John Davies, who is the current chair of the board. "We bear the ultimate responsibility. That's the nature of a judiciary responsibility."

In a sense, the university, to the regents, is a corporate business - with a $12 billion budget and a reported worth of $50 billion - that they have the responsibility to manage.

"It's a little bit like a corporate model, so we try to stick with major policy issues and oversights through periodic reports in different areas," Davies says. "At the moment, our responsibility includes overseeing the treasury of $50 billion plus in funds."

Controversial Decisions

The decisions made by the UC regents, who also manage three national laboratories for the Department of Energy, have frequently had a national impact. As the premier public university in the nation, what the regents decide in California on issues in higher education tends to resonate throughout the country.

The UC regents were the first to ban the use of race and gender preferences in public university admissions in 1995 - a decision that set the stage for California's subsequent passage of Proposition 209 to end affirmative action in the state. Since then, similar measures have been passed in the states of Washington and Florida.

Their decisions affect not only the 170,000 undergraduate and graduate UC students, but also employees, faculty and professors.

Because the regents often make controversial decisions, as many as 50 UC San Francisco police officers are present at each meeting to maintain security. As a result of the decisions that they have made, regents such as Ward Connerly have even been targets of death threats in the past.

Board Makeup, Meetings and Term Limits

Since the beginning of its history, the board of regents has been known to be dominated by wealthy white males. Although white males remain dominant in terms of number, California governors have chosen more females and minorities in recent decades.

Currently, 16 males and nine females sit on the board of regents. Of the male members, nine are white, three black, two Asian and two Latino. Seven white females, in addition to one black and one Latino, serve on the board as well.

The regents hold six open-door public meetings each year, usually in a conference room at the Laurel Heights campus of UC San Francisco and occasionally at UCLA as well.

Ex officio regents, who include the governor, lieutenant governor, state superintendent, speaker of the assembly and president and vice-president of the UC alumni association, serve as regents as long as they remain in office.

The UC president, whose position is not limited by any term, is selected through a national search pending approval by a majority vote of the board.

The terms of the 18 appointees are 12 years, subject to state senate approval, and the student regent term is one year. Currently, one vacancy remains on the board.

Beyond the public meetings, the regents meet even more frequently behind closed doors and in special subcommittees, where many of the most significant decisions concerning the institution are made.

"A lot of things that get done are done between meetings," Davies says. "If a group meets on a particular issue, if there's more than four regents there, it has to be publicly noticed."

At The Table

When the regents arrive at public meetings, each walks past a table at the entrance containing triangle-shaped name plates. As regents walk into the auditorium-style conference room, they pick up the name plates with their respective names and, with a few exceptions, can sit where they want, although tradition has it that many regents tend to sit in the same seat according to seniority.

UC President Richard Atkinson sits in the middle of the table, facing the audience. When public officials like the speaker or lieutenant governor are present, seats around Atkinson are often saved and offered to them.

"It's like students," Davies says. "Some like to sit in the front, some like it in the back. Some like to face the audience, some like their backs to it. I always sat in the same place. It was just comfortable to sit there. Some people like to turn their heads a certain way."

It is essentially up to each regent whether or not to attend a meeting. There are no written bylaws or rules stating that regents must attend any specific number of meetings.

Gov. Gray Davis, who has been an ex officio member of the board since taking office in 1999, does not frequently attend meetings. Connerly could not be present at last week's meetings due to a book signing to promote his new book. Regent Sherry Lansing, who is also CEO of Paramount Pictures, could not attend her first regents meeting last year due to prior obligations to prepare for the Academy Awards.

Ex officio regents, who are frequently precommitted to many other state obligations and functions, attend as their schedules allow them to.

In order to conduct business, the regents must have a quorum: nine regents for transaction of business at regular meetings of the board and 12 regents for transactions at business meetings of the board.

According to Davies, regents realize the very major responsibility being a regent entails; he says attendance has never been a problem.

"You have general obligation to attend meetings," he says. "The absence is not really a big problem."

Deadlines, Headaches and 'Paper Waterfalls'

When the handling of a rapidly growing and constantly changing university system lies in the hands of a 26-member governing board, the regents often find themselves busy trying to keep up with university issues.

Regents receive background material prior to all meetings in the form of very bulky meeting packets, reports and other materials that the president and employees in the office of the president think would be useful for them.

"It's like standing under a paper waterfall for them," says Chuck McFadden, who works in the office of the president headquarters.

According to Davies, the work associated with being a regent takes up about one-third the time of a full-time job. He adds that being the chair of the regents this year is almost like a full-time job. The position of UC regent is an uncompensated post.

"It's mountains of paper that you read," Davies says. "Countless telephone calls, traveling, attending meetings. It's a big job."

The fact that regents must be able to make the commitment to an uncompensated post makes it almost inevitable that they be financially stable. Most of the regents are corporate owners and businesspeople worth millions of dollars.

"You have to be able to devote that amount of time, uncompensated," Davies says.


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