Art Torres (Stevenson, 1968, government) worked to help the University of California promote the diversity of its student body while serving a two-year tenure as the alumni representative on the UC Board of Regents.
The University of California is governed by the 26-member Board of Regents, which has authority over university policy, financial affairs, tuition and fees. The Alumni Regent rotates between the ten campuses. As alumni regent, Torres focused on assisting the campus in providing access and increasing representation of black undergraduate students and diversifying the students planning to become physicians. He also supported universities’ efforts to remove barriers that make it difficult for students to pursue higher education.
The work is taking time to show results, although Torres points to the increasing number of black students as a sign that the system-wide effort is succeeding. Black student enrollment at UC hit 9,886 in the fall of 2021 after several years of steady increases. However, Torres quickly realizes that there is still so much work to be done.
With a long history in California leadership and politics — Torres served as a member of the California State Assembly (1974-1982), the State Senate (1982-1994), and as Chairman of the California Democratic Party (1996-2009) — and as one of them For sophomores at UC Santa Cruz, he brought a distinctive perspective to the discussions.
“I am proud to have served as the alumni regent for Santa Cruz because I love the campus and I love what they have been able to do and do in relation to the future,” Torres said. “Santa Cruz is very special.”
Torres was a strong supporter of UC Santa Cruz and encouraged the board to approve Student Housing West, which will provide housing for about 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
In a recent interview, Torres shared his experiences as a member of the UC Board of Regents, his priorities, and how alumni can support the University of California. The interview was shortened and edited for clarity.
They have served in the California Convention, the State Senate, and many other leadership positions. What was it like serving as an alumni representative on the UC Board of Regents? How was service as regent similar or different?
No. 1, I would never have guessed that, and No. 2, the running time is too short. It’s only been two years and I think you’re really paralyzed in terms of what you can accomplish. Although I don’t want to serve 12 or 15 years like some of my former colleagues did.
What I found most interesting was the challenge of dealing with so many subjects. Dolores Huerta, the founder of the farmworkers’ union, was my first boss and at 92 she’s still pretty strong. She told me beforehand: “Be careful because if you do this you will have so much to read. In your time it will be impossible.” And she was right. It takes a lot of time to keep up to date on issues that come before the board.
So what I said to future alumni 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 up to that point. So that’s what I did. The first dealt with the Student Housing West project at UC Santa Cruz to ensure the environment is protected. Working with community leaders, and also with the Chancellor and other activists, I wanted to make sure we had a carefully considered plan.
The other issue is the miserable record we have of accepting African Americans into UC. One of the most important ways to increase representation among Black students is to ensure our campuses are welcoming and inclusive spaces. One way to do this is by having a diverse faculty that reflects our student body.
Only 6% of our admissions class are African American. There are reasons for this – and one of the reasons is a well-known identity issue with black professors. There is not enough in the UC system.
So Black students are not comfortable in an environment where they don’t see any of them in leadership roles or in the classroom, except for our great UC President, Michael Drake. But other than that, we don’t have enough out there, and that includes Latinos and Asian and Pacific Islander (API) professors.
We did a good job (with the Latino access) as we did in Santa Cruz. We are now a Hispanic serving university. But we haven’t done enough in terms of the professional fields where we need more Latino professors, more API professors, and of course more African American professors. I’ve focused on that issue and now Janet Reilly, who I’m very close to as regent, takes care of that issue when I leave, and that was important.
The other is something I worked on with John Perez, who was a former Assembly Speaker and was appointed to a long term by (then Governor) Jerry Brown, and that’s on the medical schools and diversity licensing . They’re awful – you won’t find Latinos getting admitted into med schools, or African Americans – not enough variety or color in UC med school admissions classes.
How did you go about bringing an alumni perspective into the discussions, or did you see that this role offers more than an alumni perspective?
It got bigger than that perspective. There was a priority for me, and that was, “How do we reach out to other nations that we have UC alumni in?” We have 1.2 million UC alumni worldwide and I felt it mattered what to do with Happened to a student graduating from UC looking for work in London? Who are they talking to? That’s why we’ve created alumni associations, some more active than others. I started networking with them to see how we could increase our numbers, and that’s work that’s going to take a long time.
Another unfinished business is how do we strengthen 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?
Achieving a breakthrough in African American registrations—and that’s not enough. Also, we are working with Regent John Perez on how to increase enrollment for Africans and Latinos in our medical schools because we don’t have enough (enrolled). Having served as chair of the congregation’s health committee 27 years ago, this was an issue then and has not changed.
The work is ongoing and must be supported by also increasing the number of Black professors at UC, increasing our efforts to make the campus diverse, inclusive and welcoming, and by providing greater support to all of our students through scholarships and more campus apartments.
What do you think are the big problems facing higher education in California?
Housing #1. Where will we place our students? Housing availability in Santa Cruz is tiny 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 the students actually live on the UC campus. This encourages many of them to apply to UC Davis after they graduate because they enjoyed the experience so much.
Have your views on UC and UCSC changed? If yes, how and why? No, they have been expanded for the most part. When I was in the Assembly and then the Senate, I helped write two master plans for higher education. When I was in the Senate, I chaired an admissions committee. My relationship with the system and colleges is long term and the impact I want to see has started to be implemented.
How can alumni best support and advocate for UC?
Through the connection with their own alumni association with their home campus. We see a lot of where alumni come back to give and participate. It’s not just about raising money for the campus. It’s also about contributing to the campus and sharing their perspective. The other way alumni offer support is through meeting with students. This can be very important, sharing stories, information or their own story in relation to how the campus has grown. We’re seeing that at a number of campuses — UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and Berkeley, for example — and you’re seeing the increase in alumni available to students. The relationships and exchanges are very enriching.