As alumni regent, Art Torres advocated for access, diversity in higher education

Art Torres in front of a microphone
With a long history in California leadership and politics, and as one of the students in the second graduating class at UC Santa Cruz, Torres brought a distinctive perspective to discussions among members of the UC Board of Regents.

Art Torres (Stevenson, ’68, government) worked to support the University of California in advancing the diversity of its student body while serving a two-year term 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 policies, financial affairs, tuition and fees. The alumni regent rotates among the ten campuses. As an alumni regent, Torres focused on supporting campuses in providing access and increasing representation of Black undergraduate students and diversifying the students planning to become doctors. He also supported university efforts to eliminate barriers that make it difficult for students to pursue a higher education.

The work takes time to show results, though Torres points to the increasing number of Black undergraduates as a sign that systemwide efforts are succeeding. The number of black undergraduates at UC reached 9,886 in fall 2021, after several years of steady gains. However, Torres is quick to note that there is so much more work to be done.

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

“I’m proud to have served as the alumni regent for Santa Cruz because I love the campus and I love what they’re doing and have been able to do with respect to 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 about 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

Torres reflected on his experience serving on the UC Board of Regents, 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’ve served in the California Assembly, the state Senate, and in many other leadership roles. What was it like to serve as an alumni representative to the UC Board of Regents? How was serving as a Regent similar or different?

No. 1, I never thought I’d be doing that, and No. 2, the term is too short. It’s only two years, and I think you really are hamstrung in terms of what you can achieve. Although I wouldn’t want to serve for 12 or 15 years as some of my former colleagues did either.

What I found the most interesting is the challenge of dealing with so many issues. Dolores Huerta, who founded the farmworker’s union, was my first boss, and at 92, is still going pretty strong. She told me ahead of time, “Be careful because if you’re going to do this you’re going to have so much reading to do. It’s going to be impossible for your time.” And she was right. It takes a lot of time to be up to speed on issues that come before the board.

And so what I’ve told the future alumni regents as they come on board is figure out what areas of expertise you want to develop and keep it short and keep it brief to that point. So that’s what I did. The first was dealing with the Student Housing West project at UC Santa Cruz to make sure the environment was protected. Working with community leaders, and also with the chancellor and other activists, I wanted to make sure we had a plan that was carefully considered.

The other issue is the abysmal record we have on admitting African Americans to the UC. One of the important ways to increase the representation among Black students is by ensuring that 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-Americans. Now there are reasons for that—and one of the reasons is there’s a known identity issue with black professors. There aren’t 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 out there, and that includes Latinos and Asian and Pacific Islander (API) professors as well.

We’ve done well (with providing access for Latinos) as we’ve done at Santa Cruz. We’re now a Hispanic-Serving university. But we haven’t done enough in terms of the professional areas where we need more Latino professors, more API professors and, clearly, more African American professors. I put my stake on that issue and now Janet Reilly, who I’m very close to as a Regent, she’s taking on that issue now as I leave and so that’s been important.

The other is something that I worked on with John Perez, who was a former speaker of the Assembly and was appointed by (then Gov.) Jerry Brown to a lengthy term, and that is looking at the medical schools and diversity admissions. They’re horrible—you don’t find Latinos being admitted to the medical schools or African-Americans—not enough diversity or color within the admissions classes of UC medical schools.

How did you approach providing an alumni perspective to the discussions or did you see this role providing more than an alumni perspective?

It became greater than that perspective. There was a priority for me and that is “How do we reach out to other nations where we have UC alumni?” We have 1.2 million UC alumni worldwide and I felt the necessary thing was what happens to a student who graduates from UC and is looking for work in London? Who do they talk to? So we’ve established alumni associations, some that are more active than others. I started connecting with those to see how we could increase our numbers, and that’s work that’s going to require a long time.

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

What are you most proud of?

Making a breakthrough on the African American admissions numbers—and it’s not enough yet. 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 served as the Assembly Health Committee chairman 27 years ago, it was a problem then and it hasn’t changed.

The work is ongoing and must be supported by also increasing the number of Black professors in UC, strengthening our efforts to make the campuses diverse, inclusive and welcoming, and by providing more support for all our students, through stipends and scholarships, and by providing more 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? The availability of housing in Santa Cruz is miniscule and that’s not uncommon at 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. A lot of them are thereby encouraged when they graduate to apply to UC Davis because they enjoyed the experience so much.

Have your views of the UC and UCSC changed? If so, how and why? No, they’ve been expanded for the most part. I helped write two master plans for higher education when I was in the Assembly and then in the Senate. I chaired a committee on admissions when I was in the Senate. My relationship with the system and with the campuses has been long-term and the impact that I want to see happen has started to be implemented.

How can alumni best support and advocate for UC?

By associating with their own alumni association with their campus of origin. We see a lot of that where alumni come back to give and to participate. It’s not just about raising money for the campus. It’s also about having the input into the campus and sharing their perspective. The other way alumni provide support is by meeting with students. That can be very important by relaying stories, information, or their own history in terms of how the campus has grown. We see that with a number of campuses—for example UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and Berkeley—and you see the increase in the alumni to be available to students. The relationships and the exchanges are very rewarding.