Group offers new plan to select regents

Joel Sawyer

The procedure for selecting regents to the University’s 12-member governing board might be radically altered if the Legislature adopts recommendations offered by a citizens’ committee last month.
The recommendations, outlined in an Alumni Association report, would create a new regent selection process that would give the governor more power in shaping the board’s composition and would scrap the representative approach toward board representation.
Currently, board members are recruited by the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, a panel of 24 community leaders from throughout the state who are appointed by the Legislature.
The council interviews candidates and recommends two to four finalists from each of the state’s eight congressional districts to the Legislature for approval. The council also recommends four at-large candidates, with one seat reserved for a University student. The regents serve staggered six-year terms, with four seats open every two years.
The Alumni Association’s report recommends that the Regent Candidate Advisory Council be jettisoned and be replaced with a Citizens’ Advisory Council. The new council would consist of representatives appointed by the governor, the Legislature, the Alumni Association and University Foundation.
Rather than recommending finalists to the Legislature, the council would recommend regents to the governor. The governor would then review the candidates and select for each open seat one finalist, who would then be subject to legislative approval. The system would mirror the process used to select judges and officers of the executive departments.
One of the reasons for placing such a high level of responsibility on the governor’s shoulders is to “beef up accountability” in the selection process, said John French, co-chair of the citizen’s committee that authored the report.
“There is no centralization of responsibility for the selection,” French said. “There isn’t anybody — after you’ve had a chance to see how a regent performs — to say to: you get the credit or you have to share the blame.'”
The new approach seems to suit Gov. Arne Carlson just fine.
Brian Dietz, Carlson’s press secretary, said the governor favors adopting the report’s recommendations. “He does support scrapping the current system, making it less political and (having decisions) reside more within the governor’s authority.”
Carlson exercised his current gubernatorial authority in the selection process last November when he specially appointed Michael O’Keefe to the board to replace regent Jean Keffeler upon her resignation.
At that time, Carlson hinted that he wanted to see more regents with business and higher education experience, like O’Keefe, and that gubernatorial intervention was one way to ensure getting top-notch candidates.
In addition to giving the governor more authority in the selection process, the report recommends naming all regents from an at-large pool rather than from each congressional district. It also recommends eliminating the student regent seat, which is currently held by Morris campus student Jessica Phillips.
The report suggests that selecting candidates from congressional districts limits the number of qualified candidates that can be considered for the board.
Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland and Herbert Chilstrom, former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, are currently contending for the 7th District seat. Both are excellent candidates, French said, but only one can emerge. With at-large seats, both could be named to the board.
Another concern is that regents are beholden to constituent interests in their districts — or in the case of the student regent, to students.
“Often enough, they are paying attention to the way in which the University relates to their district and how to get University programs for their district, or how to avoid losing University programs that are in their district,” French said. “That’s the way state legislators and members of Congress ought to think.”
But Phillips doesn’t see the need for eliminating constituent-based seats.
“Why get rid of them?” she said. “I don’t think regents have represented any particular group or constituency,” she said. “We do what’s best for the University and the entire state.”
Phillips added that having representatives from greater Minnesota districts and a student voice is critical in bringing different perspectives to the board.
The Alumni Association report also recommends internal reform of the board that would ensure the regents focus on managing University policy rather than administrative details.
While the report has been endorsed by the Alumni Association Board, the Faculty Consultative Committee and the University of Minnesota Foundation, gaining support from the Legislature might prove difficult.
“I think the system we have now, although we’ve had some difficulties of late, has worked very well,” said Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee.
Carlson said he and his colleagues are willing to discuss giving the governor more authority in the selection process but might not be willing to do away with congressional district representation on the board.
“Breaking away from the congressional approach would be very difficult,” Carlson said, because people living outside the Twin Cities might feel excluded from University matters.
Legislators must introduce the recommendations in a bill this session in order for the selection process to be changed by 1999, when the next slate of regent elections takes place.
French isn’t sure if all of the recommendations will be adopted, but said he hopes something will be done.
“Whether they swallow them whole or take little bites, I hope that some reforms come out of this.”