As Regent of Alumni, Art Torres advocated for access and diversity in higher education

Art Torres (Stevenson, 1968, government) worked to help the University of California advance the diversity of its student body while serving a two-year term as an alumni representative on the University’s Board of Trustees. ‘UC.

The University of California is governed by the 26-member Board of Regents, which has authority over university policies, financial affairs, tuition, and fees. The Alumni Regent rotates among the ten campuses. As alumni regent, Torres has focused on supporting campuses by providing access and growing representation for black undergraduate students and diversifying students considering becoming doctors. He also supported universities’ efforts to remove barriers that prevent students from pursuing higher education.

The work is taking time to show results, though Torres points to the growing number of black undergraduate students as a sign that system-wide efforts are succeeding. The number of black undergraduate students at UC reached 9,886 in fall 2021, after several years of steady gains. However, Torres is quick to note that there is still a lot of work to be done.

With a long history in California leadership and politics – Torres served in the California State Assembly (1974-1982), State Senate (1982-1994) and as Chairman of the Democratic Party of California (1996-2009) – and as one of UC Santa Cruz’s second class students, he brought a distinctive perspective to the discussions.

“I’m proud to have been the Santa Cruz alumni regent because I love the campus and I love what they are doing and have been able to do for the future,” Torres said. “Santa Cruz is very special.”

Torres was a strong advocate for UC Santa Cruz, encouraging the board to approve Student Housing West, which will provide housing for approximately 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Torres discussed his experience on the UC Board of Trustees, his priorities, and how alumni can support the University of California during a recent interview. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You have served in the California Assembly, the State Senate, and in many other leadership roles. What was it like serving as an alumni representative on the UC board? How was serving as regent similar or different?

No. 1, I never thought I would do this, and No. 2, the term is too short. It’s only been two years, and I think you’re really paralyzed as to what you can accomplish. Although I wouldn’t want to serve for 12 or 15 years like some of my former colleagues did either.

What I found most interesting was the challenge of dealing with so many questions. Dolores Huerta, who founded the farm workers’ union, was my first boss and, at 92, she is still going strong. She told me in advance, “Be careful because if you do that, you’re going to have so much reading to do. It will be impossible for your time. And she was right. It takes a long time to be aware of the issues that come before the board.

And so what I said to future former Regents when they come on board is figure out what areas of expertise you want to develop and keep it short and keep it short until that point. So that’s what I did. The first was for the Student Housing West project at UC Santa Cruz to ensure the environment was protected. Working with community leaders, as well as the chancellor and other activists, I wanted to make sure we had a carefully thought out plan.

The other problem is the abysmal record we have on admitting African Americans to UC. One of the important ways to increase representation among Black students is to ensure that our campuses are welcoming and inclusive spaces. One way to achieve this is to have a diverse faculty that reflects our student body.

Only 6% of our admissions class are African Americans. Now, there are reasons for that – and one of the reasons is that there is a known identity problem with black professors. There are not enough in the UC system.

So black students don’t feel comfortable in an environment where they don’t see one of their own in leadership roles or in the classroom, other than our great UC president, Michael Drake . But other than that, we don’t have enough, and that also includes Latino and Asian and Pacific Islander (API) teachers.

We did well (providing access to Latinos) as we did in Santa Cruz. We are now a Hispanic-serving university. But we haven’t done enough in terms of professional areas where we need more Latino teachers, more IPA teachers, and, clearly, more African American teachers. I put my stake on this issue and now Janet Reilly, who I am very close to as regent, she is dealing with this issue now that I am leaving and so that has been important.

The other is something I worked on with John Perez, who was a former Speaker of the Assembly and was appointed by (then Governor) Jerry Brown for a long term, and which is looking at medical schools and the variety of admissions. They’re awful—you don’t find Latinos admitted to medical schools or African Americans—not enough diversity or color in UC medical school admissions classes.

How did you bring in the alumni perspective in the discussions or did you see this role offering more than an alumni perspective?

He became bigger than that prospect. There was a priority for me and that’s “How can we reach other countries where we have UC alumni?” We have 1.2 million UC alumni around the world and I thought the necessary thing was what happens to a student who graduates from UC and is looking for work in London? Who are they talking to? We have therefore created alumni associations, some more active than others. I’ve started contacting them to see how we can increase our numbers, and that’s going to be a very time-consuming job.

Another unfinished business is how to increase alumni associations in Mexico, South America, Europe and Asia to give our students access to areas they may not have had before?

What are you most proud of?

Making a breakthrough on the number of African-American admissions – and it’s still not enough. Also, working with Regent John Perez on how we increase admissions for Africans, Latinos in our medical schools because we don’t have enough (enrolled). Having been chairman of the Assembly Health Committee 27 years ago, that was a problem then and it hasn’t changed.

The work is ongoing and needs to be supported by also increasing the number of black faculty at UC, strengthening our efforts to make campuses diverse, inclusive and welcoming, and providing more support for all of our students, through stipends and scholarships, and providing more on-campus housing.

What do you see as the big issues facing higher education in California?

Housing, No 1. Where are we going to put our students? Housing availability in Santa Cruz is miniscule and that’s not uncommon in Berkeley. Davis is different because they provide housing for community college students. They have an ongoing relationship with Sacramento City College, so students actually live on the UC campus. Many of them are so encouraged when they graduate to apply to UC Davis because they enjoyed the experience so much.

Has your perspective on UC and UCSC changed? If yes, how and why? No, they have been widened for the most part. I participated in the drafting of two master plans for higher education when I was in the Assembly and then in the Senate. I chaired an admissions committee when I was in the Senate. My relationship with the system and with the campuses is long and the impact I want to see is beginning to materialize.

How can alumni best support and advocate for UC?

By associating with their own alumni association with their home campus. We see many instances of elders returning to donate and participate. It’s not just about fundraising for the campus. It is also about having their say on campus and sharing their point of view. The other way alumni provide support is by meeting students. This can be very important in relaying stories, information or their own story in terms of campus growth. We see this with a number of campuses – for example UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz and Berkeley – and you see the increase in the number of alumni available to students. Relationships and exchanges are very rewarding.

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