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Truce Leaves Tensions Over Control of UC Unresolved

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Even as the University of California Board of Regents rejoiced at their newly minted truce with President Richard Atkinson, one crucial question remained unresolved: Who runs the university?

Both those regents who support Atkinson and those who had called for a review of his performance tried to claim victory Tuesday. And their continued jockeying for advantage led some experts to suggest that this temporary detente will do little to quell tensions building over the broader issue of who is in charge.

Regent Ward Connerly said late Monday that he and Gov. Pete Wilson agreed to cancel the special review because Atkinson conceded that the regents set UC’s agenda and he must get permission before he can order a delay in their policy to roll back affirmative action.

“For the first time, [Atkinson] stated it in unmistakable terms,” said Connerly, who led the regents’ resolution, approved last July, that bans race and gender preferences in admissions, contracting and hiring.

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But Regent Ralph Carmona, an Atkinson supporter, said he believes the president--who sent conciliatory letters to the governor and the entire board Monday--did an artful job of acknowledging that he mishandled the situation without relinquishing his administrative powers.

Last week, Atkinson announced that he was postponing the affirmative action ban for undergraduate admissions for one year, until fall of 1998. But in his Monday letters, he told regents he had erred in not adequately consulting them and proposed a compromise date six months earlier: spring of 1998. The board is expected to consider that proposal next month.

That means, Carmona said, that Atkinson “comes out pretty unscathed, his authority unchanged and intact. I don’t think he sacrificed anything. . . . This is a real positive result for the president.” Instead of giving up his power, Carmona said, “he’s asserted it.”

This clash of opinions suggests that there is truth in what higher education experts have said for days: UC is suffering a governance crisis that one canceled meeting will not resolve.

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As long as the board and the administration are fighting over who is in charge, these experts say, they will spend too much time negotiating and too little time leading the institution through challenging times.

Further complicating matters is the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, the statewide affirmative action ban that Connerly and the governor are trying to qualify for the November ballot. On Tuesday, 47 Democratic state legislators released a letter condemning Connerly, who is heading the initiative campaign, and demanding that he remove himself from the debate over affirmative action at UC.

The legislators complained that Connerly is using his position as regent to “sensationalize the normal administrative actions of the university’s president. . . . This is a crass misuse of his position, a conflict of interest and a violation of the Constitution.

“The initiative chairman is obliged by our state’s ethical norms to excuse himself from further involvement in regental matters concerning affirmative action,” the letter said.

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However, Connerly said he will not back down. “I did not renounce my rights as a citizen when I became a regent,” he said. “I believe that preferences are wrong. . . . I see no conflict.”

UC’s leadership crisis was sparked by a fight over affirmative action, but it has evolved into a very public struggle for power.

“The system is under assault by all sides, now,” said Patrick M. Callan, executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center in San Jose.

“You have the view that the Constitution gives the regents this authority and the buck stops there. On the other side, you have shared governance--essentially the diametric opposite--which says that as long as the president brings to the board an internal consensus [agreed upon by UC faculty and administration], the board is expected to ratify it.”

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At those two extremes, Callan says, “almost everyone’s wrong. I don’t think the Board of Regents exists just to be a traffic cop. But the contempt that some of them have shown for the opinions of those running the university [is also wrong]. Neither one of those extremes is going to make the university work.”

In recent days, the governance issue has threatened to overshadow the central affirmative action debate.

“Affirmative action has somewhat gotten lost in this fiasco,” said Sabrina Smith, a spokeswoman for the UC Student Assn. Students, she said, are beginning to resent what she called the “power play over who controls the university [being waged] at the expense of our education.”

One source said that a major point of contention was whether the president would state, in writing, that he personally supports the regents’ affirmative action ban.

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This was important to Connerly and the governor because some regents have promised to bring the issue of affirmative action before the board again. If Atkinson had agreed to endorse the policy, the source said, it would have been difficult for opponents to mount an effective campaign to restore affirmative action.

Atkinson’s letters did not include such a statement. But Connerly said Atkinson did reassure him “over and over again, ‘I’m not trying to set myself up to preempt the board.’ ”

And Connerly said Atkinson also reassured him that he will not allow UC administrators to let their personal feelings about affirmative action interfere with implementation of the ban.

“It has been my view that many of our administrators have been operating on a ‘let’s wear them down’ strategy” to avoid putting the policy in place, Connerly said. “His letter and the conversations we had make it very clear that strategy has failed.”

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But again, it all depends on whom you ask. The letters Atkinson sent Monday stop short of endorsing the regents’ policy, and say only that he recognizes the board’s role in setting policy and vows that he and the chancellors will implement whatever policy regents approve. Atkinson had no further comment on Tuesday.


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