More than a suit at the table

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Monday’s legislative hearing featured a parade of the chairmen — and one chairwoman — of the state’s six public university systems’ boards of regents. Members of the Legislature asked questions ranging from efficiency to diversity of campuses and from the influence of the Texas Public Policy Foundation to the ideal size of boards. One seldom-mentioned topic even found its way to the hearing: the role of the student regent.

The position of the student regent was created in 2005, ending various levels of support for the idea over a period of almost three decades. The decision came at the heels of tuition deregulation, which took the power to set tuition out of the hands of the Legislature and placed it into the hands of the regents.

The student regent has all the privileges of all of his or her regent counterparts — except for the right to vote. Of the 39 states that have student regents on their university system boards, 29 of them give the student the right to vote, according to The Texas Tribune.

During Monday’s Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency hearing, Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the committee’s co-chairman, asked every board chair about the usefulness of the student regent position and if a student regent should have the right to vote. All of them lauded the value of having a student on the board, but none of them showed strong support for handing him or her a vote.

Student regents are not traditional representatives, as they are not elected by a body but rather appointed by the governor. But considering that none of the other regents are elected either, this in no way justifies precluding a student regent the right to vote.

Gene Powell, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, said the short, one-year appointments of student regents makes it difficult for them to be acclimated enough to be voting. After all, all other regents are appointed for six-year terms, and the board’s meetings are at least one month apart, though usually longer. Yet the board does not see acclimation being a factor for its other regents, as they do not have to wait for a year before receiving voting privileges. And, as was brought up during the hearing by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, rushed appointments in the last year resulted in some individuals to be fully functioning regents before they were given training or orientation.

Additionally, the original version of the 2005 bill, authored by state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, called for the creation of two student regent positions that would be appointed to staggered, two-year terms,and the senior student regent would have the right to vote. The bill, which was watered down to its current form, would have provided the continuity necessary to maximize the value of a vote by a student regent.

A lack of a vote does not invalidate the role of student regents, and many of them have been active in maximizing their positions to provide a quality student perspective at the highest level.

However, voting instills the quintessential responsibility of the student regent, which is to provide student feedback on issues to the board. If a student regent does not have the right to vote, he or she has no incentive to connect with students at different campuses across the system, and the hard-earned position can allow one to go from public servant to public spectator.

No, a student regent does not function as a representative for all students of the system. But surely there’s more than just another suit at the table.

— Shabab Siddiqui for the editorial board.