If a bill pending in the California Legislature passes, all three of the state’s higher education governing boards will have two voting student members. Advocates say the student representatives provide an important firsthand perspective on issues like campus safety and basic needs.
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California students could gain more representation on two of the state’s three higher education governing boards this year.
In 2019, the state Legislature expanded the number of students with voting power on the California State University Board of Trustees from one to two. This year, legislators have done the same for California Community Colleges Board of Governors and are considering a constitutional amendment that would make the same change for the University of California’s Board of Regents.
While the changes may seem nominal, student representatives say the bills are a win — taken together, they effectively double the number of student voices in some of the nation’s largest higher education systems and send a strong message about the competence of student representatives.
“It’s important to note that students are the ones who know most about the challenges that they are facing and their voices will be essential in tackling these challenges and potential solutions,” said Democratic state Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda, the author of SCA-5, which would expand voting power for UC student regents in their first year.
Student representatives on the CSU, UC and community college boards are appointed by the governor from a pool of candidates vetted and nominated by each system’s student government association. Before 2019, student appointees on all three boards had to wait a year before gaining the ability to cast votes.
The Student Senate for California Community Colleges approached Assemblymember Jose Medina to craft a bill after his successful expansion of student voting power at the CSU, according to Andrew Nickens, outgoing student senate staffer.
Nickens said AB-337, which waives the voting restrictions for student members of the California Community College Board of Governors, validates that the state’s community college students can and should be meaningfully involved in the system’s decision-making process from the beginning of their appointment. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law in June.
Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza, a UC Berkeley undergraduate, served as the regent-designate on the UC Board of Regents for the past academic year. As a regent-designate, Zaragoza did not have voting power despite often being “one of the people who knew the most about the item in the room,” she said.
The current setup of the UC Board of Regents means students are unable to vote in half of the board’s committees where issues such as student housing, tuition hikes and basic needs are being considered. The UC bill, currently under consideration in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, would allow for a voting student representative to be present in all committee meetings.
The expansion of student voting power at the CSU in 2019 made a “major difference” in the board’s ability to understand the impact of policy decisions on the student experience, said Loren Blanchard, who served as the university’s vice chancellor for student affairs from 2015–2021.
“Everybody around that dais, especially those that were nonstudents — they sat up, they really listened attentively and were oftentimes seeking additional information from the students to gain a higher level of clarity before they actually took the vote,” he said.
Effectively communicating the realities of being a college student today to trustees who may not always understand them is one the main roles of a student trustee, said Krystal Raynes, the 2020-2022 student trustee on the CSU board and an undergraduate at CSU Bakersfield.
“Either their grandkids are in college and that’s how they know about what’s happening in college kind of vaguely, or they don’t really have any family members in college and they haven’t been in college for a long time,” Raynes said. “So it’s up to us as student trustee board members to bring that perspective in, and always remind them it’s different nowadays.”
Raynes said a safe return to campus, basic needs and housing are a few topics where student perspective is essential to ensure effective governance from statewide boards. As a student during the pandemic, she said it was critical to share her own experience facing housing insecurity with trustees and administrators like Blanchard.
“You can see it on his face, that my story, my testimony, made a difference with him,” she said of Blanchard.
Blanchard said he remembered Raynes’ story vividly and that input from students like her is vital when crafting the system’s annual budget. The 2021-22 state budget allocates $15 million to the CSU to expand its basic needs program.
Student advocates in the California Community Colleges hope the changes at the statewide level will set the stage to expand student power in the system’s 73 local community college districts, too.
Before serving as a UC student regent, Zaragoza was a member of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. There she was involved in ongoing efforts to expand student voting powers at the local level, where many decisions about day-to-day operations of the colleges are made. Currently, each district varies in student input, though all are required to include one or more non-voting student members.
AB-1216, authored by Asm. Rudy Salas, a Bakersfield Democrat, would create a working group to study whether to set a statewide standard for student powers at the community college district level. It’s also pending in the Appropriations Committee.
“It’s very interesting where instead of the local community colleges being so student centered and then the big hierarchical statewide board being more, I guess, separated from the students, it’s like the other way around,” Zaragoza said.
Reagan is an intern with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.