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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Tuesday, July 19, 2016
As you may have seen, the Regents will vote July 20th on a proposed revision to their By-laws and the University's Standing Orders.  An original presentation was made at their May 12 meeting; tomorrow's discussion will be about a modified version of that proposal.  You can find the modifications here. Commentary on this has been provided by former Regent Velma Montoya (here and here), Hank Reichman at the Academe Blog has commented here, and the California Association of Scholars has sent a letter reprinted here.  I urge you all to read the various documents and commentaries but I wanted to clarify some of the important issues quickly.

The proposal combines two major sets of changes.  The first is a dramatic alteration in the Regents committee and meeting structure--an alteration that could reduce both public debate and oversight in important ways.  And second, the proposal begins a process that will likely result in the elimination of the Standing Orders of the University.

These proposed changes have led to a wide range of criticism. The weakness of the arguments in favor of these changes suggests more fundamental problems with the current status of the Board of Regents.

1) At present the Regents have 10 Standing Committees.  The proposal reduces this number to 6 and vests important internal power to the Governance and Compensation Committee.  In addition, the Chair of the Board, Chairs of Committees, and the President of the University are being given the authority to determine the scheduling of discussion whenever an individual Regent wants an item added to an Agenda (3).  Importantly, although Committee meetings are traditionally held sequentially under the new system, different Committees will meet concurrently during the 1st day of the Regents meeting, making it more difficult for newspapers, members of the University community, and members of the public to attend all the meetings they are concerned about. Interestingly, there will no longer be a Long-Range Planning Committee.

It is, of course, impossible to know how these changes will actually affect the Regents practice.  But having listened to the discussion at the May meeting, I am not confident that they serve any purpose other than the centralization of power.  In discussing the origins of these proposals, proponents suggested that they grew out of a Regents retreat and were a response to the sense that too much time at meetings was spent listening to reports from administrators.  I have a great deal of sympathy for anyone forced to suffer through an administrative filibuster.  But there is a simple way to avoid that--demand that all reports be in writing, sent in advance, and then read them before the meeting.  That way you can push back against the filibuster by asking intelligent questions or raising objections. If the individual Regents are too busy to do that then they should just decline the honor of serving on the Board.

Reducing the number of Committees and dividing up Committee presentations will not solve the problem of too much transactional activity--all it will accomplish is reduce the possibility of public oversight and also increase the specialization of Regents even if the second day has a long plenary session.  As with their reorganization of the Health Care Committee--where a report indicating a problem of communication internal to the Health Sciences enterprise led to an expansion of central power under the Regents--the Regents have identified one problem and proposed a solution to something else.

2) The Governance Committee is also proposing that the Standing Orders be absorbed into the newly drawn By-Laws.  Although I don't agree with the CAS that the Standing Orders function as some sort of legislative record, they are correct that they should not be folded into the By-Laws.  (It is the fact that they are not a legislative record that gives them their importance).  The Standing Orders as they stand now have been infrequently changed and they are extremely detailed.  It is their public detail that makes them so important.  To give only one example, when the Regents determined that they wanted to give President Yudof special furlough powers they needed to make explicit changes under public scrutiny--scrutiny that produced a great deal of debate.  To be sure, the Regents did what they wanted to do--as is their wont--but they needed to do so publicly and with their responsibility marked out. If you want wider input, then publicity is important. Of course if you don't, then having vaguer rules will have that effect. The new By-Laws are in fact much vaguer than the Standing Orders, which will allow for changes with less scrutiny. One argument made in favor of this change is that the By-Laws take a 2/3 vote to change while the Standing Orders only require a majority vote. But the simple answer to that is to make the Standing Orders require a 2/3 vote as well.

In a nutshell, the Regents are considering a set of changes that may make it more difficult for the public to see what they do at their meetings and allow for policy changes to proceed along vaguer than usual lines. At a time when UC administrators are under increased scrutiny and the University itself is viewed with greater suspicion of being out of touch with the State, the Regents are proposing a major overhaul of their organization and relation to the public without real justification or careful university wide discussion.  That one likely result will be greater control in the hands of fewer Regents is a cause for alarm. The whole process highlights fundamental problems with the practice of Regental governance.