The UC regents voted Wednesday to appoint a UC Berkeley student government leader as the next student regent, despite strong opposition from some Jewish and pro-Israel groups angered by her past advocacy of divesting university funds from Israel.
Sadia Saifuddin, who will be the first Muslim to be student regent, won approval of all the regents except for Richard Blum, who abstained. He said he was concerned her nomination to be the student voice on the board in 2014-15 was too divisive and that he did not know enough about her views.
But other regents said they thought Saifuddin would be able to represent students of all backgrounds and ethnicities and that her past activism on the divestment issue should not disqualify her from holding a seat on the university’s governing board.
They pointed to her other activities in seeking to improve student life and financial aid and noted she had the support of many Jewish students.
As a senator in UC Berkeley’s student government, Saifuddin co-sponsored a controversial student resolution that called for the UC system to divest from companies that do business with the Israeli military in its occupation of Palestinian territory.
The UC Berkeley student Senate narrowly passed that nonbinding resolution in April after an emotional debate. But regents, who control investments, say they will not divest from Israel.
Rabbi Aron Hier, campus outreach director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was among several speakers at the meeting in San Francisco who urged regents to reject Saifuddin.
Her divestment stances and other positions involving the Middle East have “polarized thousands upon thousands in the campus community and beyond,” he said. In a letter presented to the regents, he added that Jewish students will face a hostile environment if they are represented by Saifuddin.
However, regent Bonnie Reiss, the chair of the committee that nominated her, praised Saifuddin as a student and leader and sought to counter any suspicion that the social welfare major is anti-Semitic.
Reiss, who went out of the way to describe herself as a Jew who strongly supports Israel, said she respected the views of those who challenge the appointment. But she emphasized that Saifuddin would not have been named “if we did not believe her commitment to represent and serve all UC students regardless of religion or political point of view.”
Saifuddin, who is from Stockton, is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants and wears a headscarf following Muslim tradition.
At a news conference after her confirmation vote, she said she would not be pressing divestment or other issues involving Israel, calling those “irrelevant” to her position as a student regent.
While she has her own personal views on the matter, she said “those have nothing to do with my work as a regent.” She said she would work to improve financial aid and to improve campus climate for students of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
For the next year, Saifuddin would be a regent-designate, able to participate in all discussions but without voting rights until her one-year term as a fully empowered student representative begins in July 2014. UC Irvine law student Cinthia Flores will be the voting student regent for the upcoming year.