Passing the Gavel: Empowering College students to Lead in Larger Schooling Governance Areas

The global COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the fragile state of higher education across the country. Budgets, tuition, enrollment, and tuition affect almost every aspect of higher education. Given this impact, executives and board members need to rethink the way they work.

One of the most pressing problems faced by university administrations is the heightened insecurity of basic needs as students experience increasing hunger and housing insecurity, as well as inadequate access to mental health services. A recent report released by the Hope Center shows that nearly three in five students experienced basic needs insecurity during the first year of the pandemic. Transfer students from community colleges who are disproportionately parents, are employed and come from low-income backgrounds are often uniquely affected.

In 2020, the University of California (UC) Board of Regents set an example by unanimously approving a report setting ambitious goals to support the basic needs of students. The report sets goals for meeting the basic needs of students by June 2025 “by providing equal access to nutritious and adequate food, safe and adequate housing (for sleeping, studying, cooking and showering) and health care to promote sustained mental and physical Well-being is guaranteed “. -Be, affordable transportation, personal hygiene resources, and emergency needs for students with loved ones. “

Importantly, the report outlines clear and measurable goals to reduce food and housing insecurity by 50 percent for both undergraduate and graduate students by 2025 researchers.

It was crucial that the efforts were led by students. During each of our tenures as student regent, we have had unprecedented opportunities to chair the Council of Regency’s Special Committee on Basic Needs, charged with developing recommendations for the university. These appointments have enabled us to lead the development of UC’s basic needs.

While the process of developing the report has drawn many lessons, there are two implications for university leaders and boards of directors that are particularly noteworthy:

  1. Boards play an important role in promoting the security of basic student needs by creating structures (in this case a dedicated committee) to address the problem.
  2. Empowering students to take formal leadership roles in university administration makes a world of difference! It is important that university governance structures involve students and that students are inspired to seek these roles. This includes those with limited time on campus, such as community college transfer students.

Student participation in governance is still an elusive aspect of higher education governance. The statement by the American Association of University Professors to the Government of Colleges and Universities states that students’ desire to participate in the governance of an institution should be treated as an “educational experience and participation in the affairs” of the institution. At UC, the student regent role has a rich history, with the first student regent appointed to the board in 1975. Although student regents may attend, vote, and generally operate in public and private meetings of the board of directors in the same way as regents who are not students, they seldom hold formal leadership roles such as committee chairmen.

The student regent as chairman of the Regents Special Committee was key to successfully developing the UC plan to improve the basic needs of students. This historic appointment sent a strong message to the university community that students should be at the forefront of the conversation.

The authorization of the student regent to lead the committee also created a clear path for advocacy groups at the 10 individual sites, mostly led by students, in order to have a regent to lead the conversation who was familiar with their realities of life. Our unique identities and experiences brought different types of expertise to the board. The three of us had served on state boards, developed campus pantries, and organized black student groups. We also examine all educational equity in our respective research.

It is important that our work to bring the issues of basic needs to the board was made possible through years of advocacy at the 10 UC locations. For years, UC has been a leader in questions of uncertainty about basic needs. A coalition of students, staff, faculty and administrators had formed a system-wide task force that focused on developing best practices among dedicated advocates at each site.

Our work on the Board of Regents has been strengthened and strengthened by this advocacy. The establishment of the Special Committee on Basic Needs by the Council of Regents has given the university a focus and an accountability mechanism to develop a strategy for solving longstanding problems. The then board of directors, Regent Emeritus George Kieffer and then Regent John Pérez, endorsed the formation of the committee and made the unprecedented decision to appoint the student regent to head the committee.

Students led the formation of the special committee, monitored its success, and built infrastructure that will guide the university’s response to addressing food and housing insecurity for the foreseeable future – a notable example of the influence and responsibility that university student members have Hold board members. It would not have been so fitting for any other regent, possibly separated from student experience for decades, to take over the chairmanship of the committee. Students on governing bodies are able to direct many of the university’s questions from a unique angle. We encourage college governing bodies to recognize students as experts on a variety of subjects that are not limited to the uncertainty of basic needs.

The next five years will be a trade-off for how colleges address basic needs insecurity, especially as COVID-19 continues to impact hunger and homelessness for students across the country. Experience at UC shows that students can effectively guide a university through one of the most demanding assignments in higher education.

While UC deserves to be commended for entrusting its students with directing such consistent efforts, we recognize that such opportunities are infrequently offered to students. This is especially true with regard to community college transfer students, who make up a third of the UC student community but are very rarely present in college administrative rooms. We urge higher education institutions to empower students to lead in governance spaces as the complex issues faced by governing bodies are likely to require reinterpretation of leadership.


Devon Graves is an assistant professor at California State University at Stanislaus and was the University of California’s 44th student regent. Hayley Weddle is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and was the 45th student regent of the University of California. Jamaal Muwwakkil is a PhD student in linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara; served as the 46th student regent for the University of California; and is a former community college transfer student.


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