UC Regent Appointments: Too Politically Motivated?

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Student applications to the UC system are evaluated based on merit, but many members of the UC Board of Regents never even applied for their positions at all - they were appointed by governors, who were often their close friends and political allies.

Article IX, Section 9 of the California Constitution states, "The university shall be entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence and kept free therefrom in the appointment of its regents and in the administration of its affairs."

Politically motivated appointments could lead to a board more concerned with the current governor's agenda than the welfare of the university, according to scholars and legislators.

Critics have suggested countless reforms to eliminate what they see as a political patronage system, but most regents contend they are satisfied with the current system.


Close ties between regents and recent California governors are common on the board. UC Regent John Davies, who was former Gov. Pete Wilson's personal attorney, was also his roommate when they attended law school at Boalt Hall. Regent Meredith Khachigian is the wife of Wilson's campaign manager.

"The governor usually appoints people they know pretty well," says Davies, who asked Wilson to appoint him. "It was something I was interested in. The university is such an interesting place."

But Davies says campaign contributions do not influence the governor's decision.

"The people the governor knows well enough to appoint usually are supporters," he says. "Some people may think (campaign contributions) enhance their chances. You can always write a story that makes it look that way."

Regent William Bagley agrees that members are usually friends of the governor. He declines to comment, however, on whether campaign contributions influenced the appointments.

"You can figure it out," he says.

Charles Schwartz, a UC Berkeley physics professor emeritus, wrote a book in 1990 researching the political and financial ties of the regents to Gov. George Deukmejian.

"Suppose you are some rich and powerful person," Schwartz says. "If you have a couple thousand dollars to invest, give it to the governor and say you want to be regent."

Schwartz says many faculty members criticize the regents but will not discuss it publicly for fear of retaliation.

Despite the fact that Gov. Gray Davis' first three appointments to the board contributed a combined $500,000 to his campaign, he has denied any connection between his appointments and contributions.


In the early 1990s, Republican Wilson appointee Lester Lee was rejected for a 12-year term as a regent by the predominantly Democratic state senate, marking the first time in 125 years that any governor's appointment was rejected.

Last year, three more of Wilson's appointments were rejected by another Democrat-controlled senate.

Many regents have also been major players in their political parties. Regent Gerald Parsky chaired the fundraising committee of a Republican National Convention, is a close friend of former President George Bush and currently serves as California chair of George W. Bush's bid for the presidency.

The heavy presence of partisan politics often influences both the appointment process and, as a result, the composition of the board, regents say.

"It shouldn't be a party issue," says Regent David Lee. "Right now (political influence is) more than I like to see. It's in the whole process."

Regents say political concerns come from the need for influence in state government to attain funding, an issue that came up several times at last week's meeting.

"There's a natural political involvement because we get funding from the state," Davies says. "It's bound to be political."

But Regent Howard Leach, former national finance chair of the Republican Party, says the regents do not let politics influence them.

"Every regent I know has the university as their primary interest," Leach says.

Former UC President Clark Kerr says his actions, such as allowing communist speakers on campus and making the ROTC voluntary, were strongly criticized by conservatives who were on the board at the time.

"The feeling was that I had been too soft on the (Free Speech Movement) students," Kerr says.

Kerr was fired by the regents soon after former Gov. Ronald Reagan was elected and made several appointments to the board.

"We ended up with all of the appointments belonging to the same political party," Kerr says. "I was being evaluated strictly on political grounds."

Former Student Regent Jess Bravin says Wilson appointed board members to carry out his "extreme" agenda and to stifle discussion. He adds that during his term, regents attempted to evade key issues to avoid embarrassment for the university.

"Some members were very impolite in expressing that dissenting voices should not be heard," Bravin says, referring to a meeting in which he brought up the topic of graduate student strikes. "One regent got up and began storming around the room as if he were about to punch me."

Eli Ilano, chair of the UC Student Association, says the state constitution designed the board to be isolated and unaccountable in an effort to keep out political influences.

"They are in no way outside the realm of politics, so not being accountable is a problem," he says.

William Trombley, who reported on the regents for 30 years with the Los Angeles Times, says the regents' lack of accountability lets them exercise unnecessary secrecy. He says the regents often kept important discussions from the public and used "ludicrous" amounts of security, such as when they confiscated the rape whistle of a meeting attendee.

"We got the Times Mirror lawyers to force the meetings open," Trombley says. "I think we were slightly successful. Like any governing board they would rather not have the public know what they're up to."


Because some critics say the prevalence of politics can harm the board's ability to manage the UC system, the method of appointing UC regents has been widely criticized, at times by state legislators.

UC regents, who serve 12-year terms, and used to 16-year terms, serve longer stints than members of any other public university governing board in the country. Board members in other state institutions usually serve for six to eight years.

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges has recommended that regents serve shorter terms.

In addition, several prestigious public university systems, such as the University of Michigan, have elected governing boards rather than governor-appointed boards.

Don Nicodemus, a UC Berkeley alumnus, says he helped found the Committee for a Responsible University, which campaigned several years ago to "democratize" the board.

The campaign tried to put an initiative on the California ballot for a university system in which the public elects nine regents, with four-year terms, and allows "campus councils" to appoint another nine.

Campus councils would be elected by students, faculty, staff and community members at each campus. To avoid problems with the state election, the plan included campaign finance reform and proportional representation.

"We got all the (university) unions statewide to endorse the initiative," says Nicodemus, who is raising money to resurrect the campaign. "To run a constitutional amendment campaign you really need about a million dollars."

Schwartz was also very involved in the campaign.

"You don't want to give up on democracy," he says. "Let's localize government on campus like a small town."

In 1993, UC Berkeley students overwhelmingly voted for a measure in support of an election system for the board. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader also endorsed the election system.

And, according to Ilano, a constitutional amendment to divide appointments between the governor, senate and assembly was sponsored in the state legislature several years ago.

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges has suggested the governor choose from a list of candidates compiled by an independent committee.

The regents, however, generally resist a change in the appointment system.

"(Regents) should be accountable to the people of California," says Leach, who opposes an election. "(An election system) is a very counter-productive system. Why would you go out to campaign for a job involving many unpaid hours?"

Lee says if problems arise with appointments, they should be fixed by the governor, not by an election system which might produce unqualified regents.

Every year, UC regents collectively select one student regent to serve a one-year term on the board. In some other states, however, the student regent is chosen by the student body instead of the board. In addition, some university boards have more than one student representative.

Ilano says the UCSA has tried to push for a graduate and an undergraduate student to serve on the board.

"If each of the regents had to go through the process the student regent goes through, we'd have an entirely different board," Ilano says.


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