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UC's Muslim student regent tackles Bill Maher, tuition and more

UC's student regent Sadia Saifuddin on Bill Maher, tuition hikes, Israel divestment and student hunger

There are 26 people on the UC Board of Regents, the august body that sits atop the University of California system. Of those, 18 are appointed to 12-year terms by a governor. One is the governor. And only one is a student. Right now that's Sadia Saifuddin, a California-born senior majoring in social welfare and the first Muslim student regent. Her selection generated thousands of protest emails, virtually none of them, she says, from the students she represents. And Saifuddin has contributed to some protests of her own. She signed on to the petition to disinvite comedian Bill Maher to be Berkeley's commencement speaker Dec. 20 after Maher, discussing Muslim illiberality on TV, called Islam "the only religion that acts like the Mafia." His Berkeley invitation stands, and Saifuddin stands her ground.

You aren't happy that Bill Maher will be giving Berkeley's December commencement address. What did you think of the TV set-to between Maher and Ben Affleck over Islam?

I think it's hard to have a conversation with Maher. People like Ben Affleck are trying to point out how troubling his views are, [but] he doesn't really accept logical or rational argumentation. He's not a very good debater, to be quite honest.

But commencement isn't a debate, it's a speech.

I was surprised that an amazing institution like UC Berkeley would honor someone who doesn't apply any of the skills we're taught in the classroom. It's ironic; we're going to be given a speech by someone a lot of us do not aspire to be like, if we care about social justice and equality and not spreading bigotry or hate.

Maher asks, "Whoever told you you only get to hear what doesn't upset you?"

There's a difference between disagreeing and being totally bigoted and racist. The things he says are so beyond reason — blanket statements like Islam is a violent religion and [its] people want to kill you. The last thing you want is for students to feel unsafe because of their identity. That's completely unfair.

[The Berkeley community] would welcome him to campus if he was privately sponsored [by a] student group, where he can dialogue with people, but basically the university is saying it doesn't give two craps about the way students and their families feel.

UC Berkeley is known for the Free Speech Movement, and not all opinions are going to be comfortable. I'm very opinionated so I know mine are not always the most comfortable, but commencement is different from a sponsored event people can choose not to come to.

You signed the petition protesting Maher's invitation. In Michigan now students are objecting to George Will as a commencement speaker. But what about free speech?

It's a concern but at the same time, it's the students' commencement. I don't support [Maher's] kind of poison, and students should be able to voice that and the administration should listen.

A new policy on commencement speakers is in the works. Have you had any input?

The final decision, I think, will rest with the chancellor or at least he will have input. [Maher's invitation] was put together by the Californians [a volunteer student group]. They're not in student government, so I don't think it's fair for this group to have such a large say. One of my recommendations was to make sure the Associated Students are involved in the decision as well; they're democratically elected to represent students. [The Californians rescinded Maher's invitation after the controversy, but UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks overruled that revocation.]

You ardently oppose the proposed tuition hike.

I've been talking to students about lobbying the governor to get more money to prevent a tuition increase. We should get more Proposition 30 revenues that were promised to the UC. It would be nice to have some guaranteed funding from the state, if we want to be sustaining public higher education in California.

Are you convinced the system needs the money?

Absolutely. I see the doubling of class sizes, the inability of professors to give one-on-one time. The quality is slowly but surely deteriorating. I see students so squeezed for money they have to forgo meals, or live out of their cars.

As student regent, you get two years' paid tuition, but earlier you struggled to pay for school.

My first year I didn't pay [tuition] because my family qualified as low income. The second year we made a couple of thousand above [the threshold] so I had to take three or four jobs.

I didn't know anything about the student regent position; I was just applying for [the] chief of staff [job] to make the rent and my mentors said I should think of applying as student regent. It wasn't something I planned; it just happened and I've been using [it] to prevent what happened to me from happening to other students. What makes the job worth it is knowing that I'm going to make a difference.

In January and February, we [she and Avi Oved, the incoming student regent] will be meeting with the chancellors on all 10 campuses about creating a scholarship program for middle-class families who feel the crunch more than families who have their tuition covered or who can pay for tuition.

Another issue roiling UC — student groups calling for the university to divest from companies to put pressure on Israel and support Palestinian rights. You support that too.

Knowing the climate on the Board of Regents like I do, I don't think that's going to be happening for a while because the university is not ready to handle repercussions. Change will come and people will realize the importance of making ethically sound investments. We'll get to where we are strategic about investments, not just in occupied territories but everywhere in the world, in any conflict zone that calls into question our ethics and what we believe about human rights.

Why is this playing out so much more on college campuses than in the nation's larger political conversation?

For the majority of Americans — many of them don't have college degrees — they're just trying to get by, feed their kids and pay the rent. An education is probably the strongest weapon you can possess: People are able to see the reality and call out propaganda for what it is. College campuses are the places where these movements start.

Yours was the only regent's vote against confirming the 2015-16 student regent appointee, Avi Oved, of UCLA.

I voted against him because there was a lot of vagueness and obscurity around the way he was elected [to student government in 2013, allegedly with funding from a controversial pro-Israel supporter]. It made me doubt his intentions and his integrity. There was a big pushback from students [against his appointment].

Has he allayed your concerns?

He has. I really don't care what his political beliefs are about the conflict in Palestine and Israel. What I care about is integrity and honesty and never compromising our relationship with the students.

On the Board of Regents, students have only one voice out of 26. The last thing I wanted was to compromise the integrity of this position by making students feel they weren't heard. [In] every conversation I have had with him [since he was confirmed], we are in a really good place and we can talk about things. Avi is going to be a great leader.

What particular issues have you brought to the regents?

My big issue is student hunger and food justice. People have literally no clue that students are going hungry and they're horrified. Sometimes you need a bit of a shock factor for people to do something. The regents themselves are so far removed from student life; a minority of them visit campuses, a majority of them went to school very long ago. It creates a disconnect. That's why I'm here!

How do the other regents treat you?

With so much respect. We agree on some issues and disagree with others. But we keep in mind we're trying to serve students.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Patt.morrison@latimes.com

Twitter: @pattmlatimes

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