Newsom appoints gay American Indian man to UC Board of Regents

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Friday June 30, 2023
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Gregory Sarris has been appointed to the UC Board of Regents. Photo: Courtesy Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria
Gregory Sarris has been appointed to the UC Board of Regents. Photo: Courtesy Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria

Governor Gavin Newsom has appointed a gay American Indian man to a seat on the powerful University of California Board of Regents.

Gregory Sarris, of Sonoma, told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview June 30 that he was "stunned" by the news, which came via a news release from Newsom's office at 7:22 p.m. June 29.

The appointment requires Senate confirmation, according to the release, and there is no compensation for the position.

Sarris is chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a position he's held since 1996, and he serves as president of the tribe's economic development board. He also is president of the Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park.

Sarris, 71, said he was interviewed for the regent position over a year ago. "It was quite an extensive interview," he said.

But he heard nothing further until Thursday night, when he said Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis informed him.

"I'm deeply honored and humbled," Sarris said. "I feel a responsibility to do well and work well with the others."

The 26-member board of regents has authority over university policies, financial affairs, tuition, and fees. The board appoints the university president. The UC system has 10 campuses, stretching from UC Davis in Northern California to UC San Diego.

Sarris received his undergraduate degree from UCLA and taught English at the university for 10 years. Last fall he served as a regent lecturer there, he said.

"I'm very familiar with the many issues of UC faculty and students," he explained.

Sarris earned a Ph.D. degree in modern thought and literature and a Master of Arts degree in creative writing from Stanford University, Newsom's release stated.

Sarris, a Democrat, will join one other gay man on the board — John A. Pérez (D), a former state Assembly speaker who was appointed by former governor Jerry Brown in 2014. Pérez's term ends in March.

Sarris said he believes he is the first American Indian to serve on the board of regents.

"I'm very proud to be out there both as an American Indian and as a gay person," he said. "It's so important to show young people. Young people need to see success."

He recalled that when he attended UCLA he "dug ditches" and tended bar while a student.

"There weren't any role models," he said.

Sarris pointed out that the suicide rate among American Indian LGBTQ young people is the highest among queer youth groups. A research brief from the West Hollywood-based Trevor Project in 2020 captured the experiences of Indigenous American and Alaskan Native youth, who are often not included in large enough sample sizes during broader surveys of American young people, reported the website Them.

"Native American LGBTQ+ youth were 2.5 times more likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year compared to their LGBTQ+ peers overall, according to the survey's findings," the website reported.

Newsom's announcement came the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court ended race-based affirmative action in college admissions in a pair of decisions that affects private and public universities. (The cases were brought against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.) Sarris noted that California has been affected by state Proposition 209 since voters approved in in 1996. It prohibits public universities from using race, ethnicity, or sex as criteria for admissions. The state's law also affects public employment and public contracting. In 2020, Prop 16 sought to repeal Prop 209 but voters rejected it.

"UC has been affected by Prop 209 for a long time and continues to find ways to work around it," Sarris said.

He added that California American Indian students from federally recognized tribes can attend UC schools tuition-free. Many tribes, however, are not federally recognized, he said. In response to that, over a year ago the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria began a program whereby $2.3 million is provided per year in perpetuity so that all California American Indians can go to a UC school tuition-free.

Graton also gave $1.5 million to UCLA Law to support a cohort of students going to law school, and provided $4 million to endow two professorships, or chairs.

"It is, indeed, the greatest institution of higher learning in the world," Sarris said of the UC system. "More than ever, we need teachers and we need to teach critical thought. I taught for 35 years in universities. I want to make sure the opportunity is there for so many students for a diverse population."

Sarris said the world is in "a dangerous place now" regarding the polarization of politics. Now, he said, there are "three or four" sets of facts. Even during the years of Ronald Reagan, a former California governor and U.S. president, "at least we understood what facts were," Sarris said.

Universities "need to teach how to think," he added. "It's so necessary now and one of the reasons why I'm honored with this position."

As for Graton Resort and Casino, Sarris said business has picked back up after the COVID years. During Sonoma County's Pride weekend events in early June, the resort hosted an LGBTQ pool party attended by about 1,000 people and its 630 Park Steakhouse hosted the "Wigs and Waffles" drag brunch.

"It was a lot of fun," Sarris said.

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