California Forum

Why the next UC regent should be from the Central Valley

Students at the UC Merced School of Engineering and School of Natural Sciences prepare for graduation at the UC system’s newest campus, May 13, 2017.
Students at the UC Merced School of Engineering and School of Natural Sciences prepare for graduation at the UC system’s newest campus, May 13, 2017. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

The San Joaquin Valley is the heart of California’s fertile agricultural region. It is home to more than 4 million Californians, and to diverse, distinctive and dynamic communities.

 
Opinion

But even though the Valley is now the fastest-growing and most diverse region of the state, its residents are underrepresented in access to higher education and economic opportunity. This underrepresentation extends to the University of California Board of Regents, the governing body of the nation’s premier public higher education system.

When my term expired last year, the board lost its only member from the Valley. It is vital that when the next round of appointments occurs in March, Gov. Jerry Brown selects a representative from our community.

For 12 years I had the honor of representing the San Joaquin Valley on the UC Board. When my term expired last year, the board lost its only member from the Valley. It is vital that when the next round of appointments occurs in March, Gov. Jerry Brown selects a representative from our community – one who can speak to the diversity of backgrounds and experiences here, as well as to the distinct needs of our residents.

The San Joaquin Valley is, for example, home to the newest campus in the University of California system, UC Merced. Launched in 2005 with 875 students, UC Merced’s undergraduate enrollment this year is nearly 8,000. The U.S. Department of Education named it the fastest-growing public research university in the country over the past decade, and with advanced study in drone engineering, 3-D imaging, clean-energy technology and social sciences, UC Merced is rising in the ranks of top research universities in the West. The school also admits more Dreamers – immigrants brought to this country as children – than the other UC campuses.

Many students emerging from the area are the first in their families to go college, and more than two-thirds are first-generation Americans. Over half of the region’s population is Latino. Students who grow up immersed in the Valley’s dominant world of agriculture – as I was when I started a food processing business with my father in 1964 – bring a perspective to the UC Board that one just can’t get in urban centers such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Valley’s current and future UC students deserve a representative who distinctly understands their concerns, their voices and their home community.

California prides itself on diversity, as over 60 percent of Californians identify as Latino, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, African American or another ethnic minority – but the current UC Board doesn’t reflect today’s California. The board also lacks geographical diversity. Of its 18 gubernatorial appointees, 13 are from Southern California, two each are from San Francisco and Sacramento and one is from Santa Barbara. For many of the population centers in the Valley that contribute so much to the strength and character of California – Modesto, Stockton, Fresno, Bakersfield, my hometown of Tulare and, yes, Merced – there is not a voice on the board.

By appointing a UC regent from the Valley, the governor would not just check a demographic or geographic box. He would signal that in our vast, diverse state, it is possible for the next generation of academic and economic leaders to succeed regardless of where they are from.

Whether Dreamers or just dreamers, our young people deserve an advocate for educational opportunity, access and affordability in the San Joaquin Valley. A regent of their own could help make their dreams reality.

Fred Ruiz, the co-founder and chairman emeritus of Dinuba, Calif.-based Ruiz Foods, was a member of the UC Board of Regents from 2004-16. Reach him at fredruiz@ruizfoods.com.

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