News Analysis: While Less Visible, Regents Still Active

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Five years ago, when the UC Board of Regents struck down the use of race preference in university admissions, all eyes were trained on its large oval table.

The 26 members of the board shocked the nation by making the University of California the first public university system to drop affirmative action from its admission processes. Five years later, however, while the decision stands firm, the regents have drifted out of public attention and, some say, importance.

The protesters that stormed the UC San Francisco meeting when the decisions were made have dwindled. Only three students spoke at one of the public comment sessions at this month's meeting at UCLA, where they urged the regents to reverse the ban on affirmative action. In 1995, protesters invaded the meeting, forcing the regents to reconvene in closed session in another room.

This month, only the traditional collection of UC administrators, journalists and a few students waiting for the board to hear their views attended the meetings, which were dominated by financial and investment decisions.

While the limelight has shifted away from the board, regents said their stand on affirmative action and other issues with which they have dealt over the past five years have shown that they are still active and dedicated.

Sue Johnson, the regents chair, said while the board has pursued less controversial actions in the past few years, it is still working to maintain and improve the university for students, faculty and staff.

"We pushed through student housing because we know how important it is," she said. "And we spend more time on positive issues rather than just contentious ones. Health and seismic issues are important but noncontroversial."

While some have expressed concern about the regents' perceived recent lack of action, others say they are glad the board does not make decisions that draw national attention on a regular basis.

"I think it's rare that they themselves come up with their own innovations and look what happens when they do - (the ban on race preferences) wasn't supported by the Office of the President or the chancellors," said Eli Ilano, chair of UC Berkeley's Graduate Assembly. "Some regents came up with the idea. It's almost better that they're not too actively involved. They're not experts in educational policy. They're a board appointed to keep the people of California in mind and serve the people of California to the university."

As the governing body of the UC system, the board holds an enormous amount of power over the fate of the university's campuses, students and faculty. How they choose to wield that power, however, can fall short of some people's expectations.

"They definitely do not debate things brought to them as vigorously as one might hope," Ilano said. "I don't know if that's because they're talking about it in committee or in closed session or that they really don't have much to say about the things being presented. But a lot of important decisions are being made in comparison to the amount of debate being engaged in."

Last January, the regents changed their schedule, holding meetings every other month instead of nine times a year. Johnson said the change has allowed the regents to spend more time visiting the campuses but is not making them less active.

"Not on my watch," she said. "We moved to six meetings rather than nine, but we're spending more time on campus. We're seeing the things we're doing and getting more hands-on experience."

Although the board now meets two full days instead of one and a half at each meeting, Regent Ward Connerly agreed that it makes the regents less visible and some people may not think the board is as active as they once were.

"I suspect the perception that we are less active is (due to the fact) that we meet every other month," he said. "We're not as visible. Our profile isn't as high. But that doesn't mean the committees aren't looking into things."

Both Connerly and Johnson said holding fewer, longer meetings is an experiment and may be changed if the board feels it could get more done under another system.

"I voted for it, but I'm still not sure that that's a good idea," Connerly said. "It's not a closed issue, and if we feel like we're losing something with this format, we may change back again."


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