About 20 protesters wearing orange prison jumpsuits interrupted the meeting of the UC Regents last Wednesday, held in Sacramento for the first time since 1993, to show that UC students were being “sentenced into debt,” while the Regents discussed how to avoid enacting a 6 percent fee increase for fall 2012. The meeting and protests further highlight the increasingly fragile state of California’s higher education system; however, the meeting was marked by a significantly more positive political atmosphere, as student activists worked more closely with the Regents and joined in lobbying Sacramento’s lawmakers.
The fate of the proposed fee increase is tied closely to Governor Brown’s tax revenue proposals, and the 2012-2013 state budget, due June 15.
Gov. Brown has recommended that lawmakers not cut the UC system when making the final revisions to the state budget, but warned that deep cuts to public higher education would be necessary if voters reject his tax measure in November. The measure would raise the income tax on top earners. Those making more than $1 million will see their state income tax level rise from 10.3 to 13.3 percent, and the state sales tax will rise from 7.25 to 7.5 percent, to raise a projected $9 billion in tax revenue.
“It seems like the thing most people can agree on is that there should be no more fee increases,” UC Student Regents Alfredo Mireles Jr. said on Sunday. “[The Regents] all asked for a $175 million increase in state funding for the UCs.”
The $175 million allocated is needed to “buy out” the proposed 6 percent fee hike, a possibility that loomed large in the midst of already soaring costs, class sizes and faculty cuts that have seen quality of education suffer.
The meeting was marked by some controversy, as the Regents approved a $411,084 salary plus benefits for Pradeep Khosla, who will take over as UC San Diego Chancellor in August, and will be earning 4.8 percent more than outgoing chancellor, Marye Anne Fox.
In spite of the controversy over Khosla’s salary approval, the meeting proceeded, unmarked by violence.
“They left peacefully,” Mireles said, “and no one was arrested. There’s more coordination between the Regents and the protesters now. The two [groups] are able to find ways to work together.”
Several protesters raised questions about the UC’s accountability during the public comment segment of the meeting.
While inSacramento, the Regents lobbied for increases in state funding, protested coming changes to Cal Grant eligibility for students from middle income level families, and called on lawmakers to reject the portions of Gov. Brown’s plan that would make it harder for students to qualify for Cal Grants. Student activists and the Regents met throughout the week with about 50 legislators throughout the week.
“If we lost those Cal Grant dollars, then the Blue and Gold plan would also be affected for middle-income students,” Mireles said, noting that lower income students would not be affected.
Wednesday’s Regents meeting marked the end of Mireles’ term as student regent. His successor, Jonathan Stein, is a joint-degree graduate student at UC Berkeley earning a master’s in public policy from the Goldman School of Public Policy and a J.D. from Berkeley Law.
In addition to continuing to lobby for increased funding to higher education, he is working to develop UNITE, a system-wide student steering committee on campus climate. The UC Student Regent and Student Regent-Designate website notes that while a similar committee already exists, they want to provide a space for more student driven action.
“There is already a System-wide Steering Committee on Campus Climate made up of campus administrators who focus on diversity and inclusion,” the website said. “We are the two student representatives. We support that committee’s goals, but we need a student space that can push the UC further, and faster … UNITE will provide student leaders who work daily on campus climate a common space filled with students doing the same work from across the UC … Three to five students from each campus will be selected to serve on UNITE by a diverse, student-only selection committee.”
Regent-Designate Stein’s first meeting as Student Regent will be in July inSan Francisco. In addition to his work on UNITE, Stein is participating in a comprehensive review of graduate and professional schools to see how they help their students deal with fee increases.
“All Student Regents choose things to focus on,” Mireles said. “But the way the University works is that unexpected things come up. You have to take it as it comes.”