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Phoenix Project Seeks Democratization of UC Regents

By Kristin McFarland
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 09:56:00 AM

At the Phoenix Project for UC Democracy kickoff Tuesday night, panelists discussed the possibilities for democratizing of the UC Regents and creating a powerful enough constituency to effect changes. 

The Phoenix Project was created as a statewide coalition of student activist organizations and community members working together to create transparency, accountability and democracy within the university administration. 

“We are such an enormous, diverse system that I think it’s necessary for our regents to be elected in order to accurately represent the UC community,” Associated Students of UC (ASUC) Senator Christina Oatfield said. 

Eighteen of the 26 regents are now appointed by the governor for 12-year terms. The regents appoint one student representative who serves a one-year term. The remaining seats are filled by ex officio members, including the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the Assembly, superintendent of public instruction, president and vice president of the Alumni Associations of UC, and the UC president. 

Democratization efforts—which will require a constitutional amendment—began shortly after the university’s inception in 1868, revived in the 1960s, when the senate ratification became a requirement, and started again in the 1990s, when the Committee for a Responsible University sought a democratization initiative on the 1994 ballot. 

Tuesday night’s panel focused not only on the need for democratization, but also on the logistics of how to accomplish that goal. Student panelists pointed to the decisions made behind closed doors and the university’s unwillingness to even converse with activists or opponents. 

“The issue isn’t that we’re not doing enough to be heard,” said panelist and Berkeley City Councilmember-elect Jesse Arreguin. “The issue is that the university isn’t listening.” 

Oatfield told the audience about the university’s role in closed-session student government meetings, in which administrators discuss the need to “frame” issues so that people will be less upset by a controversial decision. According to Oatfield, the university works harder to frame an issue than to deal with an issue itself.  

“It’s a constant battle to deal with the UC administration,” Arreguin said, recalling his own student committee days at UC Berkeley, when the university refused to listen to opponents of its parking and transportation policies. 

“The question that I still don’t know the answer to is whether we have the chance to succeed,” said panelist Charles Schwartz, professor emeritus of the Department of Physics, and an active leader of the 1994 ballot initiative. 

Schwartz pointed out that the movement needs not only to propose a democratic model, but also to organize a constituency of voters. 

The current system was justified by the source of the money, Schwartz said. When the university was created, the state provided most of the money and therefore appointed the people to manage that money. 

But now, according to Schwartz, citing his independent research, the ever-increasing student fees now cover 100 percent of actual undergraduate education costs. The university claims that fees cover only 30 percent of the “cost of education,” but under its model, that cost includes not only undergraduate education, but also graduate education and faculty research.  

In reality, Schwartz says, no state money now goes to undergraduate education: The students pay for that themselves. 

Schwartz proposes that the regents be appointed or elected in proportion to the sources of the money. He calculates that eight regents should be elected by the students and parents who pay the fees. 

“We can succeed to the extent that we can project this to the world,” said Ignacio Chapela, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. 

Chapela pointed to the controversial 1998 $25 million deal between Novartis and his college, of which he was an active critic. According to Chapela, faculty was notified of the deal 30 minutes before it was announced and had no say in the decision. Although Chapela and other faculty challenged the deal and drew national attention to it, no changes were made to the original agreement. 

“People don’t realize that what we did was open a tiny little window into the oppression that happens at the university every day,” Chapela said. “What’s happening here that one must open an expensive lawsuit and risk one’s career just to open the books a little bit?” 

Chapela argued that the university has absolutely no transparency, is completely shielded from public scrutiny and answerable to no one. To overcome that, the project must gain significant public support and force the university to listen. 

“It has to be a systematic change, a really big picture change,” said student panelist and activist Marcela Sadlowski. “It needs to be taken from the students and the community to the streets of California so we can change the constitution.” 

The Phoenix Project will hold a statewide summit in Berkeley Jan. 19-20, concurrent with UC Regents’ meeting on the Berkeley campus.