A Near Coup d'Etat at the University of California

When I was appointed a University of California Regent, a Governor-appointed Regent warned me to take seriously the proposals from the Regents’ Governance Committee, and ask, “What Are They Up To Now?”

As reported earlier on these pages, at the May UC Regents’ Meeting, the Governance Committee presented huge changes in the Regents’ Bylaws and Policies -- many in place since 1969 -- that would black out transparency and public accountability that have protected the public interest and empower the President, former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, with greatly enhanced autonomy by hamstringing the Regents’ check on her authority.

To address questions raised at the May Meeting, a 6/22/16 telephone conference was held by members of the Governance Committee.   The Committee never achieved a quorum. 

To be voted on July 20, the new policy recommendations include the following.

Current proposals would reduce the number of Standing Committees from ten to six and, in contrast to current practice where all Regents sit around the table while the various Committees meet with any Regent free to contribute to any Committee, in the new system Committees would meet concurrently on the first day of the regular two-day meeting.  The second day would include a plenary Board session for all Regents to discuss items in depth.

Governance Committee members did not address the problem that concurrent committee meetings may make it difficult for news media to report what is happening in a timely manner.  It appears that videos of committee members would continue to be archived for only one year.

The major policy change being proposed is that an individual Regent may no longer place any item on the Regents’ meeting agenda without the decision of the Chair of the Board, in consultation with the President, about when the item would be scheduled.  The rationale for this, according to current Vice-Chair of the Board Bonnie Reiss, is so that Regents will be able to “more effectively use our limited time together” and to thwart the “potential for a Regent to put a really divisive issue” before the Board.  Reiss – who presumably will ascend to Board Chair next year – opined that the item could be scheduled in “one month, three months.”

But the robust functioning of the Regents requires that potentially divisive issues be brought before the Board.  Many issues begin as insignificant and possibly divisive, and are later recognized as significant.  For example, in past years the issues of environmental sustainability and student hunger were not considered appropriate for Regental consideration; now they are.  It is crucial that a Regent not be thwarted from bringing a potentially divisive issue to the Board’s attention.

Throughout this discussion, no Board member has mentioned Article IX, Section 9, of the California Constitution, created to protect the University of California Regents from political influence and control, for example, by the California Legislature.  The California State University system was not granted similar protection. 

Yet the proposed modification could enable some few Regents to curtail the free speech and academic freedom of others.

A couple of years ago, the University of California would have benefitted from a Regent placing on the agenda the issue of UC’s rights to the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden allegedly granted in perpetuity by Regent Edward Carter to UCLA; Regent Carter’s heirs argued that the UC Regents, UCLA’s governing body, promised to maintain the garden forever.  The UC Regent contacted by the Carter family for help reported that he did not know he had the right to set an item on the agenda.  An internal resolution of the dispute would have been preferable to what happened as UCLA’s name was dragged through the mud in Court.

Next, the allegation remains that proposed changes to the Governance Committee concentrates power in a super-committee.  The composition of the new Governance committee will be discussed and presumably decided at the July 20 Board Meeting.  But the proposed change in authority of the Governance Committee appears omitted from the agenda.  The Committee would recommend to the Board the appointment and compensation of all University senior leaders, presumably including all campus Chancellors and any successor UC President.

While Regents are nominated by the California Governor and confirmed by the California Senate, this version of the proposal would enable the full Board to initiate misconduct procedures against a Regent, based on a recommendation of the Governance and Compensation Committee.

And this version of the proposals continues to downgrade the importance of UC’s contracts with the U.S. National Laboratories by placing them in the National Laboratories Subcommittee of the Academic and Student Affairs Committee.   Why do the Regents wish to signal to UC’s competitors their disinterest in the billions of dollars in contracts generated by the National Laboratories?

Last, but not least, the Regents should understand that these proposals constitute a stealth operation.  The proposals were put forth in May when most campus professors and administrators were concentrating on final examinations and graduation ceremonies.  And the proposed changes will be voted in July when most campus professors are away from campus or concentrating on research.  Subsequent to my sharing the initial essay about the proposed governance changes, a seasoned UCLA professor, who has served on its powerful Planning and Budget Committee, responded “I had no idea.”   

One change the Regents should consider is to make themselves more accessible to the public.  Contrary to earlier practice when each Regent was required to provide personal contact information to make themselves more accessible to the public (at least a PO Box and voicemail), it appears that current practice is for the Secretary of the Regents to accumulate communications and documents, and, only after a long list has been accumulated, pass on to the Regents a list of communications received.  It can take a week or more for the Regents to get word that a letter has been received, with no further acknowledgement.  A leader of a California higher education scholars group bluntly opines it “a scandal” that Regents who should be the conscience of the public allow themselves to be cut off from the public by the UC central administration.

The UC Regents should call time out to reconsider their governance changes.

Velma Montoya is a University of California Regent Emerita.

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