Regent Kim wasn’t best for the job

When Hyon Kim announced she would not seek reelection to the University’s Board of Regents, she bemoaned the fact that legislators were only looking at her votes on tenure reform, and that from the beginning people viewed her as just a token minority on a nearly all-white board.
With all due respect to Regent Kim, it should have been clear to anyone following the selection process that she was indeed chosen mainly because of her race. Members of the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, which screens applicants and recommends up to four finalists to the Legislature, made it clear they wanted a minority, or at least a woman. With Kim they got a two-fer.
If there is any doubt as to what legislators were looking for, examine the comments they made, published in the Daily, at the time of her selection in April 1994.
“It would have looked very bad if (out of the four candidates) a white male was chosen,” said Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, then one of Kim’s main supporters.
“We need more people of color and women on the Board of Regents,” said Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge, DFL-New Hope. “I supported Kim because of her business experience and her global perspective.”
Sen. Sam Solon, DFL-Duluth, who supported a different candidate, said, “There was a lot of discussion in the Legislature prior to the vote about what the media would say if we did not support a minority woman.”
That’s a legitimate concern. It’s a good bet that if a white man got the job, the Daily and other organizations would have lamented the system that once again supported the status quo and cemented the good old boys’ network.
The only regent besides Kim who is not white is William Hogan, an African American, and I agree that a more diverse board would serve the University well. But why Kim?
When asked by the advisory council about her stand on affirmative action, she said she was not too familiar with the concept but that she would listen to the administration’s position on it. Less than two weeks later when she was interviewed by the joint House and Senate Education Committee she said, “Affirmative action is my life goal. It’s not just a concept for me, but a commitment.”
The council selected four names, from a pool of 11 finalists, to forward to the Legislature. The three candidates Kim eventually beat out for the job were clearly more qualified to sit on the board and handled themselves better in their interviews.
Among them was Elsa Vega-Perez, a first-generation Puerto Rican born in New York City, who was the director of the Hispanic Education Program. But she made the fatal mistake of being the only candidate to not wholeheartedly support University 2000.
As a Daily reporter covering the selection process, I saw the wave of furrowed brows and frowns that spread across the council when Vega-Perez said of U2000, “the fact that students must be from the top 25 percent of their class — that certainly does not represent the bulk of students of color in high school today. I see (a plan for) vigorous recruitment of students of color — but will they stay? Retention is a problem at the University.” (So long, Elsa.)
The other two finalists were Gerald Christenson and Billie Young, who are both white. Christenson is the former chancellor of the state’s community college system and headed the presidential search committee that produced our leader-in-waiting, Mark Yudof. Young owned and ran the Old Mexico Shop in St. Paul for 22 years, and prior to that she taught English as a second language at the University of Illinois.
Kim almost didn’t make it into the finalist pool. The first round of voting put Young on the list, and the second round added Christenson’s name. In the third round Vega-Perez was named and Kim was dropped from the race because of lack of support. After pressure from council member Al deLeon, of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, Kim’s name was put back in the running, and after two more rounds of votes she was named a finalist.
Since becoming a regent, Kim has repeatedly hyped her Asian background. During at least her first six months on the board, she would start nearly every sentence with a qualifier like, “As an Asian immigrant …” or “As a person strongly committed to diversity. …” Although that is important, and relevant to some questions, such as the debate over whether or not to close General College, it is not necessary to announce in relation to every question. How are people supposed to think of her as anything but “the Asian regent” if she mentions it every five minutes and clings to it as one of her only qualifications?
If I was the only woman on a governing board and I answered every question with, “Well, as a human being with ovaries …” I wouldn’t be surprised if people didn’t take me seriously.
But for the most part, it’s hard to fault Kim personally. After all, she went for what she wanted and got it — albeit under questionable circumstances. It’s not her fault legislators rushed to support her because she’s Korean and has a storybook rags-to-riches background. (The Korean War separated her from her family; she moved to the United States “with one suitcase” in 1970; she was a single mom; she began her study at the University’s General College, as she worked her way through school, then started her own company, Juno Medical & Trade.)
Conventional wisdom holds that she lost support from legislators after she backed a tenure-reform proposal that was unpopular with faculty members — who may have then pressured lawmakers to boot Kim. Others say perhaps the Legislature simply realized it had made a mistake and that Kim wasn’t really up to regent standards.
In any event, not everyone was dissatisfied with Kim’s performance on the board.
Helen Phin, president of the Minnesota Student Association, said Kim was an advocate of students — voting against tuition increases and fighting to keep General College open.
“She was definitely one of the more proactive regents as far as communicating with students,” Phin said. “There was a perception that maybe she was a token, but she proved herself to be more than just another Asian-American woman. She’s a great businesswoman, a great leader and a great woman who overcame a lot of difficulties.”
It’s a sad situation all around. If lawmakers had been more dutiful about electing a diverse board in past years, there wouldn’t have been such a strong need in 1994 to name a minority at any cost. Or had the Legislature chosen a more qualified minority, Kim wouldn’t have had to go through all this and, in effect, get kicked off the board just when she was getting the hang of it.
Maybe during the current search for new regents, members of the advisory council and the Legislature will look for candidates who not only have diverse backgrounds, but are the best people for the job. They’re not mutually exclusive characteristics.
— Kris Henry’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday. Her e-mail address is [email protected]