Art Torres: UC Santa Cruz’s fifth alumni regent

Art Torres’s role as alumni regent will give UC Santa Cruz an important voice at the table during a critical time for the University of California and its students.

This month, Art Torres, a former California state senator and former chair of the California Democratic Party, was named the fifth UC Santa Cruz alumnus to serve as an Alumni Regent.

When he first arrived at UC Santa Cruz, Art Torres (Stevenson, ‘68, government) was in for a bit of shock. But he soon learned to love it.

The education was bold and experimental, and dissent was in the air. The Doors and Aretha Franklin boomed from his dorm room hi-fi. UC Santa Cruz’s woodsy setting required some adjustment for this city kid from East L.A., who transferred to the campus from an urban community college at the urging of his dean.

“We were not an outdoorsy kind of family,’’ Torres said, laughing.  “My dad was a working-class butcher all his life. We lived and breathed the city. The first time I ever saw a deer cross my path was at UC Santa Cruz on the way to the library!”

After an initial rocky adjustment to his rigorous and intimate courses – “the classes were so small; you couldn’t hide, like you could in a large lecture course” – Torres discovered “a very magical place.” He  immersed himself in politics and social activism, served as Stevenson College’s student president, and recruited some living legends to speak or perform on campus, including Alfred Hitchcock, sitar master Ravi Shankar, and the rock band Jefferson Airplane. 

Now, more than 50 years later, Torres is speaking up for the campus in a new, high profile way. This month, Torres, a former California state senator and former chair of the California Democratic Party, was named the fifth UC Santa Cruz alumnus to serve as an Alumni Regent. Torres served as a UC Santa Cruz Foundation Trustee from 2014-2018.

At any given time, the Board of Regents has two alumni regents, and two alumni regent designates. UC Santa Cruz gets to appoint an alumni regent every eight years. The most recent appointment was Ken Feingold, who served from 2012-2014.  

An important voice at a critical time 

The UC Santa Cruz Alumni Council (the 25-member Board of Directors of the UC Santa Cruz Alumni Association) chose Torres, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.  The Alumni Council received eleven applicants for the position, all of them highly qualified and experienced members of the UC Santa Cruz alumni community, said Michael Riepe, UC Santa Cruz Alumni Council president.

Torres’s role as alumni regent will give UC Santa Cruz an important voice at the table during a critical time for University of California, Riepe said. 

“We are confident that Art will serve with wisdom as a close partner and friend to UC Santa Cruz, that he will work with us to create more outreach to UC alumni, and that he will provide a steady hand as the University of California faces unprecedented challenges over the next two years,” Riepe said.

Riepe also called Torres “a wonderful role model for recent graduates. “Art exemplifies how a UC education can lead to social mobility and a more level playing field,” Riepe said. 

At a time when an accessible and affordable UC education faces constant threats, Torres has a long track record of advocacy for students from under-served communities, Riepe said. 

He also mentioned Torres’s unique preparation for a newer and more unexpected threat. “Art is laser focused on the looming budget crisis that will be precipitated by COVID-19,” Riepe said. “His experience and political connections will be invaluable as the regents and the rest of the UC system navigate this unprecedented crisis.”

UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive called Torres “an outstanding choice for alumni regent. I am so proud he will represent UC Santa Cruz in this important role.”

She pointed to his four decades of experience as a public servant. “He distinguished himself with his strong commitment to the sciences, his defense of the environment, and his understanding of complex public policy issues,” she said.

“Art also recognizes the importance of a UC education as a vehicle for social mobility, especially for first-generation and low-income students from diverse backgrounds,” Larive continued. “His commitment to social justice and human rights speaks to the core values of UC Santa Cruz.”

A career of distinction 

Torres, the first in his family to graduate from a four-year university, leveraged his UC Santa Cruz education to lead a rich, varied, and successful career devoted to public service. 

After graduating from UC Santa Cruz and earning his J.D. from UC Davis, Torres went on to work with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta as the legislative director of United Farm Workers (UFW).

Torres served as a John F. Kennedy Teaching Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School before being elected to the California State Legislature. He served in the California State Assembly from 1974 to 1982 and in the California State Senate from 1982 to 1994.

He has written bipartisan legislation in the fields of health care, education, the environment and human rights. He served for twelve years on the Senate Education Committee, as well as the Senate Select Committee on UC Admission.  

Torres is now vice chair of the governing board of the California Institute For Regenerative Medicine, a public agency charged with distributing $3 billion in funding for stem cell research authorized by Proposition 71 in 2004. UC Santa Cruz received $26 million to build stem cell labs and help establish the Genomics Institute with help from Torres and the governing board.

 A new chapter 

Last week, Michael Riepe called Torres to give him the good news.

“I was just very honored and happy because it’s a new challenge,” Torres said. “I look forward to working with Chancellor Larive. She is an accomplished scientist and professor who is the perfect leader for UCSC in these coming days.”

His appointment comes at a critical time for the future of the University of California and its students, Torres said. “The decisions made during the remainder of this year will be so important for the future.”

Torres said he will work closely with alumni to make sure he has a strong sense of their priorities.While each regent must represent the entire UC system, and not just one campus, alumni regents bring fresh perspectives to the board.  

He also mentioned the various ways that the University of California has been confronting the COVID-19 crisis, from the work of its research labs to the dramatic shift towards online teaching during a time of safe distancing and a statewide order to shelter at home. All these adjustments are forcing UC to be flexible and expand its teaching mission, he said.

 “There is no question we are facing a very serious question,” Torres said. “What will the University of California look like going into 2021?”