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Jerry Brown takes a new tack with UC Regents

January 16, 2013 |  7:00 am

Brown and Henning

The University of California’s Board of Regents has long been considered among the most plum of gubernatorial appointments. It has been compared by past members to the College of Cardinals at the Vatican. Former Gov. Pat Brown said it was akin to “the order of the garter in England.”

Before Jerry Brown was first elected governor in 1974, the board was seen as a club of the affluent and well-connected that Times education writer Don Speich described as “a homogeneous lot, they were mostly white, mostly male and mostly wealthy friends and supporters of the governor who appointed them” who could be found “only at the most expensive hotels and eating only at the poshest restaurants.”

It was, in short, exactly the kind of institution a younger Jerry Brown wanted to turn on its ear.

During his first two terms as governor, Brown used his board appointments to change the makeup, and the culture, of the Regents. His appointees included a local YMCA director and a Zen Buddhist who seemed to have more faith in the intelligence of dolphins than of the university students he taught at UC Santa Cruz.

On  Wednesday, Brown will attend the Regents meeting in San Francisco, returning to the same board before which 30 years ago he argued faculty should be paid less because of the “psychic income” they derive from their jobs. His goals now are a bit more modest than they were decades ago – asking the university to embrace more online courses, hold the line on student fees and tighten its fiscal belt.

Brown has been meeting privately with university leaders for months, seeking a greater understanding of the university’s culture and its problems – a far cry from the political bomb-throwing approach of his past. “He’s appointed some of the best people, in my judgment, and some of the worst,” said the late Wilson Riles, the former superintendent of public instruction, of Brown’s appointees to the board in 1979. “There’s no pattern. He’s moved by the spirits.” Riles criticized Brown for naming members who had “no understanding of the university.”

That was confirmed by Regent Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist best known for his work with porpoises and named to the board by Brown. He once said he was “unable to have an opinion on most of the matters that come before our board … To correct my incompetence and ignorance,” he wrote in a letter to the UC president, “it would be necessary to do a great deal of work. But I am not motivated to do that work.”

Bateson went on to say that students “will get little from the university if they come to it, and when they leave will give back to society rather little of what they got.” Brown seems eager to avoid such confrontational appointees this time around. Despite three vacancies on the Regents, and two more spots set to open up in March, the governor has yet to name anyone to the board since returning to the governor’s office in 2011.

“I also know these boards are not affected by one or two people, so there’s no rush,” he said in an interview last fall. “I am more strategic now since I understand this better and I’m patiently looking for openings. I know that I don’t just want change for the sake of change because that’s superficial.”


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--Anthony York in Sacramento

Photo: Gov. Jerry Brown, right, with John "Jack" F. Henning , executive–treasurer of the California Labor Federation, AFL–CIO at a meeting of labor leaders in Sacramento. Brown appointed Henning to the UC Board of Regents in 1977.  Credit: Los Angeles Times