Gov. Jerry Brown appointed his finance director as a University of California regent Monday, and three others to the powerful higher education governing board — including a union leader with the Service Employees International Union.
Brown named Michael Cohen, 45, of Sacramento, his state Department of Finance director since 2013. Cohen has also been a budget executive with the department and has held jobs with the state’s Legislative Analyst’s office. He has registered no party preference.
For years, Brown has clashed with the regents over finances. While the regents have consistently threatened to raise tuition if increases in state funding were not forthcoming, Brown has succeeded in keeping tuition flat in exchange for small increases in state funding tied to inflation. Cohen’s appointment appears to be an effort to install a like-minded thinker onto the board.
The regents serve 12-year terms. In addition to setting tuition, they appoint the campuses’ chancellors, set their pay, and establish policies on academics, finances, faculty and planning.
Brown also named Laphonza Butler, 39, of Los Angeles, who has led the SEIU United Long Term Care Workers Union since 2010 and was a national division director and campaign director for the union in Washington, D.C. She is a Democrat.
Butler will be the regents’ only union representative. Although SEIU has little presence at UC, representing one employee group at UC Irvine, labor disputes with the regents are routine, and workers frequently address the board flanked by supporters.
The governor also appointed Cecilia Estolano, 52, of Pasadena, president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, who will leave that board. Estolano is a co-founder and executive with Estolano LeSar Advisors, an urban planning and public policy firm. She has a law degree from UC Berkeley, and a master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA. She is a Democrat.
Estolano’s appointment — with Brown’s 2014 appointment of state Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley — reflects another priority of the governor for UC: increasing the number of transfer students.
Brown considers it a money-saver for the state when students begin at a community college, then transfer to UC as a junior. But the process has often been rocky because the systems don’t always coordinate well. Brown withheld $50 million from UC’s 2017-18 budget and made one condition for freeing the cash this spring that UC sign up one transfer student for every two freshmen. (UC has said it achieved this systemwide, but not yet at each of its nine undergraduate campuses.)
Brown’s fourth appointment to the regents was Richard Leib, 61, of Solana Beach (San Diego County), a consultant who was general counsel at a waste managment company, Liquid Environmental Solutions, until last year. Leib is a Democrat.
Of the 26 regents, 18 are appointed by the governor and must be confirmed by the Senate Rules committee. Except for a student appointee, the others are ex-officio members who serve by virtue of their office. With the four appointments, there remains one vacancy.
Brown’s nominees come a week after the nonprofit Campaign for College Opportunity released a study showing that the governor-appointed regents and other higher education governing boards in the state are disproportionately white. Of the 13 regents currently serving, eight are white, three are Latino, one is black and one is Asian American.
Yet, despite the diversity of the new appointees — one is Latina, one is black and two are white — “women and people of color are still underrepresented on the Board of Regents, and there is no one from the Central Valley,” said Michele Siqueiros, president of the research group. However, she said, Cohen and Estolano “have been champions for student success, and that gives me a lot of hope.”
Regents Chairman George Kieffer and UC President Janet Napolitano said they looked forward to working with the new members.
Napolitano called them “accomplished.” And Kieffer said their expertise “will bring fresh insights to the board and the university as a whole.”