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Speaking Up, Not Out, for Student Rights

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s a funny thing, being a student member of the University of California Board of Regents. People approach you with notions of what a student regent should be like: opinionated, somewhat domineering and possibly a bit arrogant.

Those characteristics seem a given for anyone bold enough to be the lone student voice on the 26-member board of trustees otherwise dominated by governor appointees and elected officials.

But Michelle Pannor, 21, makes a surprisingly unassuming first impression. The Los Angeles native’s nomination to sit on the board as the 25th student regent was confirmed at a board meeting last week. Pannor was among nearly 80 applicants. A student selection committee narrowed the field to three, from which a board of regents committee selected Pannor.

Pannor said students have told her, “You’re not what I expected. You’re so down to earth, I feel like I can give you a hug.”

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Pannor--voted “best personality” her senior year of high school--takes the comments good-naturedly. She simply responds, “That’s OK, you can still hug me. I don’t mind.”

Mild exterior aside, Pannor, a mass communications and conservation double major in her fourth year at UC Berkeley, is no stranger to the inner workings of the UC administration. Her resume is filled with positions on an array of student committees. One of the three jobs she holds is that of student liaison to the vice chancellor for undergraduate affairs, meeting regularly with student leaders on the Student Advisory Committee.

“I think people who first encounter her might think that it’s easy to manipulate her, or that she won’t be a strong advocate,” said Tomas Sandoval, who has worked with Pannor in his role as president of the graduate assembly, which represents graduate students at Berkeley. “But she actually has a strong handle on a lot of issues.”

The world Pannor is entering has fewer academic administrators and more corporate leaders and campaign contributors holding 12-year terms. Like the alumni regent, the student regent serves only one year. During that year, which begins July 1, the board will meet nine times for two-day sessions. Although Pannor will not be paid for the position, she will receive a student-fee waiver of about $2,800 plus expenses. She will be charged with providing the lone voice of someone who knows what university life is like on a daily basis.

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Jess Bravin, who served as student regent from 1996 to 1997, points out that someone like Pannor would be better qualified to gauge the potential impact of a board decision such as raising student fees. “If you’re a multimillionaire, the idea of fees going up a few hundred dollars a year may seem like nothing,” he said.

The opportunity to influence decisions and effect change attracted Pannor to the student regent position. Aware of her unique role, Pannor is careful to keep herself accessible to the concerns and opinions of her peers.

“I know that students are more likely to approach me than the other regents,” she said. “I live here, I have an office on campus and I have e-mail.”

Pannor lives modestly, walking or taking public transportation around town. She has a small, fourth-floor apartment that she shares with a roommate. To brighten the place, Pannor and her roommate painted the living room purple, the kitchenette red and the cabinet doors blue. In her bedroom, she uses dark blue vinyl shower curtains as drapes and has photos of friends decorating her walls. In the midst of it all, Pannor looks the complete professional in her tailored black suit with her long brown hair pulled neatly back.

She credits her ability to remain open-minded to her childhood in the multicultural mecca that is Los Angeles.

“I love Los Angeles because it’s so diverse, and that’s why I’m proud to be from L.A.,” she said. “It’s the combination of all the different people and all the different neighborhoods that makes it an interesting place.”

When her parents divorced 13 years ago, Pannor and her mother, Joyce Pannor, moved from the affluent Cheviot Hills neighborhood to the beach community of Playa del Rey, then to their current home in Woodland Hills. Her weekends were spent doing homework with her father, Harry Pannor, in the Pacific Palisades. She grew up as the only child in the household, but remains close to her father’s three children from a previous marriage, who were in their late teens and early 20s when Michelle was born in 1977.

Looking back on her adolescence, Pannor said she joined the swim team, debate club and became a peer counselor at Calabasas High School because she didn’t want to come home to an empty house. “I’m very people-oriented. At home, I would’ve been so bored,” she said. Pannor’s desire to be around people has carried through to her college years. She says it is one of the reasons she chose to live in a student co-op, and a major reason why she looks forward to getting married and having a big family.

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While Pannor recognizes the challenges her new role brings, she remains undaunted. For one thing, she believes she’s capable of dealing with a variety of people of all ages, a skill she said she learned from her parents. Her father, a World War II veteran, is a psychotherapist, and her mother, a former teacher, now works in sales.

But listening is one thing. Effectively conveying ideas to the board is another.

Those who have worked with Pannor believe she can do it.

“Michelle always sticks to what she believes in, even if she’s the only voice,” said Linda Igarashi, who has gotten to know Pannor through weekly meetings of the Committee on Student Fees. “She can stand alone and still represent her ideas well. She may not convince others who disagree with her, but she makes it known that she doesn’t agree.”

Although Pannor has not committed to a specific agenda for what she hopes to accomplish during her tenure--"I’m not a politician,” she said--she has already expressed concerns about increasing diversity at UC campuses and keeping control of student fees.

For the next 3 1/2 months, she will work closely with the current student regent, Max Espinoza at UCLA, before assuming the role July 1.


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