For student regent, sitting on UC board means taking a stand

Being the one voting student on the University of California governing board calls for constantly “evaluating and reevaluating your intentions,” says UC student regent Sadia Saifuddin. If you’re in it for the tuition relief, for notoriety or any such agenda, “the job’s not worth it. It’s a ton of work.”

Sadia Saifuddin

Social-welfare major Sadia Saifuddin serves as UC student regent. (UC Berkeley photo by Cathy Cockrell)

Four months into her one-year term, the Berkeley senior finds herself speaking to local and national media about the controversial student-fee increases just approved by the regents. She serves on a majority of the board’s 10 committees and visits UC campuses up and down the state. She’s worked on a systemwide task force on sexual violence. And she’s traveled to Pakistan, where her parents are from, to speak to students; that trip came at the invitation of a college there, on news that a young Pakistani-American had become the first Muslim regent for the University of California.

Although she’s missed classes, lost sleep and put her social life on hold since becoming a regent in July, Saifuddin is upbeat about the role, speaking of it as “fate” and “blessing,” a job “I was meant to do.”

Reluctant politician

Her CV supports the notion. In her Stockton high school, Saifuddin served as senior-class president and school-district student trustee, and took up debate and original oratory. During her second year at Berkeley, one work-study job she landed was chief of staff to then-student regent Jonathan Stein, who eventually urged her to apply for the position. She also served a term as ASUC senator.

Student-government offices and public speaking notwithstanding, Saifuddin does not aspire to a career in politics. “Even though I’m a politician in this role, that’s not what I want to do with my life,” insists the social-welfare major.

If she ever changes her mind, her experience as a UC regent and a Muslim woman should put her in good stead. Saifuddin was in fourth grade when 9/11 happened, and only gradually came to a deeper understanding of the taunts she experienced in grade school as mere annoyance. When her appointment as student regent was pending, critics mounted a campaign to block her confirmation, citing her support in the ASUC for targeted divestment from companies doing business with Israel.

Saifuddin says she’s not surprised she drew heat for that position, but was taken aback by claims that, in her bid for student regent, she was trying to co-opt the UC system and spread Sharia law. The “most beautiful part” of that crisis, she says, was that friends who are Jewish “and also very pro-Israel” — students she’d grown close to during the divestment debate — came to her defense.

Tuition plan

Last week’s vote on UC’s plan to raise tuition, as a path to greater financial stability, brought another political storm. Saifuddin, not surprisingly, is sympathetic to the university and regents in what she views as a power struggle between the governor, the state and UC. The latter, she believes, has been “backed into a corner” by state disinvestment and Gov. Jerry Brown’s line-item veto of funds promised under Prop. 30, a law she and other students worked hard to pass. Still, she voted against the UC plan.

“I think the UC is on the right track in identifying the problem,” she says. But “putting students in the middle,” in her view, is not the way to go.

On the day of the vote, Saifuddin was nervous about her prepared statement (since published on the Berkeley Blog), “because I publicly told the governor that he lied to us. That was a little scary to look him in the eye and say those things…. As someone who voted for him, I have the right to express how I feel. I think I vocalized what a lot of people were feeling.”

For Saifuddin, serving as a regent has transformed her understanding of the complex issues UC faces. “When you’re a student and don’t have access to these conversations about budgeting and the state’s relationship with the UC, it’s easy to have a unilateral view of what’s going on,” she says. “Our high-level administration and our students often work in silos, which is why there’s all this tension.”

But she’s also experienced “magic moments” when UC students, administrators and staff, under deft leadership, have overcome mutual discomfort to collaborate effectively.

If that were to happen more, Saifuddin says, “we’d be able to solve this problem.”