Public Comment

UC Democracy: After 140 Years, It’s Time for Change

By Matthew Taylor
Thursday November 06, 2008 - 10:14:00 AM

For those who care about the University of California and its relations with our broader world, the catalyzing opportunity for real change is for distinct groups to find common cause and democratize the UC. Collectively, can we reverse the widening chasm between a concerned public and an aloof, unaccountable Board of Regents composed of elite, wealthy businessmen. The Phoenix Project for UC Democracy aims to build a coalition to democratize the UC Regents, and our kickoff event will be Tuesday, Nov. 18, 7 p.m. at the Hillside Club in Berkeley ( for more info). 

A public institution severed from the social contract grows alarmingly dysfunctional: scandals over outrageous administrative salaries, corporate pacts, skyrocketing student fees, nuclear weapons production, poor community relations, poverty wages for workers, unfulfilled minority enrollment, and token environmental gestures. Constantly, disparate concerned groups hoist banners, go to meetings, and knock on doors—all to little or no avail because of the UC’s unaccountable, undemocratic governing structure. 

With few exceptions, rivers of petitions, letters, and pleas rarely receive even a response from the Regents. This year, some students fight arbitrary cuts to East Asian Languages, others fight the elimination of the UC Center for Labor Studies. Some protect trees, others are concerned about tobacco funding for health research. Unions march over contract negotiations, and every year hundreds of students head to Sacramento, but hit wall after wall. Usually, Regents who bother to show up for the one-minute public comment sessions smirk or sit aloof. 

This can change, starting now—if you help. 

United by common challenges to specific concerns, a statewide movement across all 12 UC campuses has begun. We seek nothing less than to amend the California Constitution to democratize the UC. 

While the UC Regents have fought this for decades, democratization has already been implemented via elected Regents and Boards of Education at many top American universities, including Michigan, New York, Colorado, Nebraska, North Carolina and Florida. 

In fact, efforts to democratize the UC began shortly after its establishment in 1868, sparked then as today by concerns about corrupt state politicians and a university led astray by unrepresentative elites. Reforms were implemented after pressure from student movements and progressive politics in the 1960s, over Regents’ objections. The California legislature mandated that Regents’ meetings be public and required Senate ratification for nominated Regents. The legislation also mandated the Regents to be “broadly reflective of the economic, cultural, and social diversity of the state,” a mandate that remains unfulfilled. 

In the early 1990s, the Committee for a Responsible University formed a “Plan to Democratize the Regents,” sparked by wage cuts, fee hikes and a $2.4 million golden parachute for then UC President Gardner. “The Regents are completely out of touch with the people of California,” noted Andy Shaw of the UC Students Association. Even Ralph Nader joined the fray: “You cannot run an institution that large, that’s funded by taxpayers, that’s supposed to be operating in a democratic society, in an autocratic and top-down manner.” 

Elites have sought to protect their privilege by feigning concern that democratization would expose long-term planning to the vicissitudes of short-term political winds. But even 35 years ago, people saw through this smokescreen. Assembly member Vasconcellos said “The group that’s on the board now is the most political of all, representing only 2 percent or 3 percent of the wealthy individuals and established corporations of the state.” 

So while the California Constitution requires that “The university shall be entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence and kept free therefore in the appointment of its Regents,” this, in practice, is farce. The idea that 12-year terms insulate Regents from political winds should be recognized as fantasy. 

Currently, the governor appoints 19 of the Regents, the majority. Students only have token representation—one student Regent, chosen by the Regents! 

Consider the two most recent nominations by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Last month the governor nominated real estate tycoon and Republican moneyman Hadi Makarechian after Makarechian contributed $289,000 for Schwarzenegger’s political campaigns. Makarechian—a co-founder of the Republican lobby group “New Majority”—sells exclusive McMansions like Ritz Pointe and Point Monarch to the uber-rich. Makarechian’s firm failed to pay $718,000 in fees to local governments, raising serious questions about civic responsibility while UC battles with local communities about land use and cost sharing. 

The governor’s other nominee this year, John Hotchkis, and his firms gave more than $470,000 since 2000 to Republican politicians. While Hotchkis was serving on the UC Regents’ investment advisory board, the Regents gave a $430 million contract to a firm in which Hotchkis had a financial stake. Democratic Governor Davis did much the same, appointing as Regents allies who’d funded Democratic political campaigns: Hotchkinson ($145,000), Marcus ($215,000), Pattiz ($300,000), etc. 

New UC President Mark Yudoff—hired at an outrageous salary of nearly $900,000 per year—acknowledges problems of accountability, but only proposes narrow changes in his recent “Accountability Framework.” 

Real accountability requires democratization. Possible options include electing most or all regents on a statewide or district basis—with public financing, or required media slots, to eliminate expensive media campaigns. Another option would be local elections, prioritizing the choices of students, workers, faculty, and community members. Reform must be joined with ongoing self-reflection and watchdogging. 

We don’t have all the answers yet. A detailed, positive program for a democratic UC will emerge as our wide coalition coalesces. Let’s bring together student groups, state universities, unions, environmental organizations, community groups, legislators, administrators, faculty, workers, high-school students, and researchers in wikis, conferences, classrooms, boardrooms, open spaces, committees, and lunch breaks. 

A democratic UC is a fundamental human right, an historic challenge, and an opportunity that can rejuvenate our sense of purpose. Hear more and contribute at the Hillside Club on Thursday Nov. 18, and look out for a summit Jan. 19-22. The UC can again be an inspiration to California and the World. Fiat Lux—and Fiat Pax. 


Matthew Taylor is a co-founder of the Phoenix Project for UC Democracy (