What’s worked and what hasn’t: student representation on Boards of Regents across the country

Tuesday, May 26, 2020 - 4:24pm

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Design by Hibah Chughtai

At the Dec. 5, 2019 meeting of the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents, student protesters from the Climate Action Movement and One University Coalition challenged the Regents’ commitment to responding to student groups’ goals with concrete action. At the end of the December meeting, several students blockaded the exits of the meeting place, preventing administrators from exiting the facility — until they were forcibly moved by police.

The Regents are the leading administrative body at the University, as laid out by the state of Michigan’s constitution. The Regents are supposed to “uphold U-M’s mission to serve the people of Michigan,” according to their website. Despite this, the outcome of the meeting suggested a separation between the University and the people of Michigan. Now, some students on campus are campaigning for a different dynamic and calling for a seat at the table.

Historically, the Central Student Government has led the campaign to add a student Regent to the Board of Regents. The most notable example in recent history is the 2016 CSG administration, led by President David Schafer and Vice President Micah Griggs, who included campaigning for the position, “ideally in a voting capacity,” in their platform. In a recent interview with The Daily, Griggs reflected on the legal obstacles to the addition of a seat, particular to the state of Michigan.

“I would say the biggest obstacle would be the state of Michigan’s constitution, because it outlines that the roles of Regents should be established and elected by law,” Griggs said. “So navigating how to achieve our objectives and our initiative … with the constitution … was the biggest obstacle and so it made us think differently about achieving our objective.”

Regent Jordan Acker (D) also highlighted this legal obstacle in an interview with The Daily, while also pointing to alternative methods for student engagement with the board.

“To have a student seat would require a constitutional amendment,” Acker said. “It’s not impossible, but constitutional amendments are … difficult and require a lot of signatures. So I would say it would be unlikely. But that doesn't mean that students can’t get involved or influence the process in other ways, or even run for the board themselves.”

University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen elaborated on other lines of communication between students and Regents in an email to The Daily.

“Students often communicate with Regents directly on a number of topics,” Broekhuizen wrote. “Regents regularly get reports from the student body president during the formal board sessions and at other times.”

Student government often functions as the primary liaison between students and University administration. For that reason, the future of the position depends largely on future leaders of CSG — and may be subject to re-evaluation, as these student leaders see fit. 

Public Policy senior Amanda Kaplan, who will serve as president of the CSG’s incoming administration, expressed some skepticism regarding the potential of a non-voting, individual student Regent to adequately represent the student body.

“I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not just the Board of Regents,” Kaplan said. “There are so many committees, institutions and bodies that govern the University because we’re really decentralized. That (set of governing bodies) also needs student representation, and so one seat isn’t going to fix that.”

As Kaplan and Acker both suggest, a student Regent — whether voting or non-voting — is not the only form that student representation can take. The Daily looked at public universities across the country to examine various models of student representation in a university’s administration and how much certain positions can increase student voice in administrative affairs.

University of California System’s Voting Student Regent

The University of California system is one of several systems to have recently added a student Regent position to their board. This position is provided for in a 1974 amendment to the state of California’s Constitution. A policy on the appointment of a student Regent was later approved in 1993, including a provision barring student Regents from holding “any appointive or elective student government position.” 

The student Regent is a voting member of the UC Board of Regents, serves a year-long term and is selected by the other 26 members of the board. The 18 of the 26 members are appointed by the governor of California.

Hayley Weddle, a graduate student in education studies at UC-San Diego, serves as the UC Board of Regents’ 2019-2020 student Regent. In her term, she worked on Title IX-related task forces and has recently contributed to UC’s decision to move away from standardized testing. In an email to The Daily, Weddle commented on her responsibilities as a full voting member.

“Having a vote on the Board of Regents is a privilege I do not take lightly,” Weddle said. “One of my goals on the board is to contextualize issues for board members so they can develop a deep understanding of students’ experiences within the UC. There are many Regents who I work with closely outside of Regents meetings, and I appreciate the opportunity to represent students’ perspectives in both formal and informal settings. In this sense, the impact of the Student Regent role extends beyond one vote.” 

Weddle also detailed her efforts to collaborate with students across the various schools the UC Board of Regents governs. She says working with students from all 10 campuses helps her understand varying perspectives while serving on the board.

“I also collaborate often with the UC Student Association and UC Graduate and Professional Council presidents and their boards, and am very grateful for their compelling advocacy work,” Weddle said. “In addition to working with system-wide student leadership groups, I also visit students at the 10 campuses to learn more about campus-specific issues and priorities. … Working closely with students across the 10 campuses ensures that I am able to represent a range of student perspectives on the board.”

Student representatives to the UC Board of Regents have not existed without challenge. Just last year, the board voted to discontinue a non-voting student adviser position, which was piloted in 2016 in an effort to increase student representation on the UC Board. The decision was met with mixed response from UC students. 

Former UC Berkeley student Edward Huang served as one of the student advisers before the position was formally terminated. He said the discontinuation of the position, which was also supported by the UC Student Association, was an effort by student leaders to curb other students’ power, according to The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper. “This lack of transparency shows elected student leaders want to eliminate other leadership roles that are competing with their own,” Huang told The Daily Bruin. 

The Editorial Board of The Daily Bruin described the adviser position as “little more than a symbolic dog bone” and called for the position to be scrapped so resources could be used to install two student Regents on the Board.  

“The student adviser position was an interesting experiment in student representation to the Board of Regents. The results are in, though: an adviser isn’t a Regent,” the Editorial Board wrote.

Instead of continuing the position, the Regents reportedly recommended the expansion of other student roles with respect to the board, including Student Advocates to the Regents. StARs are chosen to attend meetings of the Board of Regents and advocate for student priorities, according to the UC Student Association’s website.

University of Texas System’s Student Advisory Council

The University of Texas System’s Board of Regents differs from the UC System and the University of Michigan’s in several respects. Unlike in Michigan, where Regents are elected to their positions in biennial statewide elections, the UT System’s Regents are appointed by the governor of Texas and approved by the Texas Senate. As of 2005, the UT System’s Board of Regents has featured a student Regent, but, unlike the UC’s student Regent, UT’s does not have voting powers.

The UT System encompasses 14 universities, including both four-year undergraduate universities and medical schools. Furthermore, the UT System has a cross-institutional Student Advisory Council, with two representatives from each institution.

Camron Goodman, a recent graduate of the McCombs School of Business at UT-Austin, served as a representative of his school on the 2019-2020 council. In an interview with The Daily, he explained how council representatives are often drawn from student government leadership, although student government leaders have the option of sending representatives in their place. He also spoke to the differing levels of influence his roles on student government and the advisory council have on the administration.

“It’s kind of a strategic way in advocating for what you want to accomplish,” Goodman said. “It works both ways where … you get the people, the Regents who are really making these big decisions system-wide, right? But you’re also taking it from a standpoint with your own university administration.”

Goodman described the dynamic between the student Regent and the advisory council, stating that having the student Regent’s presence on the board overall “creates a stronger argument” to present to the Board of Regents.

“That Regent is there to provide support,” Goodman said. “I think that’s how the relationship works. … Student leaders come together, create proposal recommendations (and) do research, and the (student) Regent is there to really help us, give us insight (and) push out … what we want to accomplish.”

In Goodman’s experience, establishing a cross-institutional council of representatives to the Regents requires collaboration with numerous stakeholders, including the various campuses.

Kaplan said she could see the UT System’s student advisory council as a “superior alternative” to a student Regent at the University of Michigan, given its capacity to represent the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses. 

“Having a student advisory council would maximize voices, and hopefully diversity, equity and inclusion would be prioritized in the process of finding those students so that there would be a wide array of experiences, identities and backgrounds included in that conversation,” Kaplan said.

For the time being, however, the best way for students at the University to present their concerns to the Board of Regents is by talking to the Regents themselves, according to Acker. Under the current circumstances at the University amid COVID-19, with the suspension of most in-person operations through the end of the summer, Acker added that direct communication from students is more important now than ever.

“I read every email that I get from a student,” Acker said. “I try to respond to as many as I can. And I think that kind of interaction, especially when we're all separate for a while, is really, really helpful to me in figuring out what the best courses of action are when it comes to anything that goes on in any of our campuses.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at jucomora@umich.edu.