When the University of California Board of Regents gathers today in San Francisco for its monthly meeting, two of the 26 seats around the board's ring-shaped table will be assigned to no one.
Septuagenarians Dean Watkins and Glenn Campbell finished their board terms last month--having served 27 and 28 years, respectively--and Gov. Pete Wilson has yet to name their replacements.
In the short term, the vacancies have raised hopes among affirmative action supporters. Campbell and Watkins voted with Wilson in July to eliminate race- and gender-based preferences at UC, and their departure means Wilson has two fewer votes on his side--at least until he names new appointees.
A proposal to rescind the affirmative action ban is on the agenda for Thursday's session of the three-day meeting.
In the long term, however, higher education experts say the vacant regent positions are part of a troubling trend at the state's three public college and university systems, the majority of whose trustees are appointed by the governor. They say Wilson's failure to fill a growing number of openings is making it difficult for those boards to do their jobs.
"How are these boards supposed to function when the governor doesn't do what he's supposed to do?" asked Patrick Callan, executive director of the California Higher Education Policy Center, a San Jose-based think tank. "It's a huge mess."
For example, the California State University Board of Trustees has had three of its 24 spots vacant for months--one of them since March 1994. This month, two more trustees' terms expired, although a 60-day grace period allowed them to stay on temporarily.
Already, the three empty seats--combined with the fact that all five ex-officio members seldom attend at once--have made it complicated at times to assemble the 11 trustees required to do business.
"For a couple of months in a row, we did have difficulty getting a quorum. It's particularly difficult in the summer when people go on vacation," said Colleen Bentley-Adler, a Cal State spokeswoman. "It definitely is a problem."
This week, the 16-member California Community College Board of Governors will get its fifth vacancy. This board too has struggled at times to get a quorum at meetings. But for the pared-down panel, which makes decisions affecting 106 campuses, the worst thing about the vacancies may be the message they send to outsiders.
Currently, the board is searching the nation for candidates to replace outgoing Chancellor David Mertes, who leaves July 1. According to Callan, prospective candidates will probably be wary of working for a board whose makeup appears to be in flux.
"What if you were thinking about applying for the job . . . and then you realize that half of your board might change?" Callan asked. "It makes for a hard sell. And it really puts [the board] in limbo."
Sean Walsh, a spokesman for the governor, said Tuesday that Wilson is very close to filling the vacancies on the UC and community college boards. He said delays have resulted from the unexpected departures of several board members.
At Cal State, he said, "one of them just died on us--dropped dead. So we're out recruiting. Another resigned out of the blue--couldn't deal with it anymore. [Those] were unexpected, so we didn't have any candidates in the pool." The governor nominated a candidate for the third and longest-standing vacancy at Cal State, Walsh said, but it was rejected by the state Senate.
Walsh dismissed the suggestion that the vacancies indicate that higher education is not among the governor's top priorities.
"To fill appointments, it takes time. The governor is very careful about his appointees. He reviews them personally. In some cases he conducts interviews. It's a long and detailed process," Walsh said. "We're not slow."
There are some who hope that later this week the UC regents will approve a proposal to rescind the system's affirmative action ban. But others say that despite the vacancies, there remain enough votes to reaffirm the regents' July action. Walsh said that Wilson, who is a regent by virtue of his position, has no plans to attend this week's meeting.
The college boards are not the only ones that await gubernatorial action. The state Constitution Revision Commission, for example, was created in May 1994 to propose reforms to make state and local governments more accountable, responsive and efficient. It was intended to have 23 members--10 appointed by the governor. But now, only seven of the governor's spots are occupied.