Board of Regents election process debated

While they may not receive hearings this session, lawmakers hope the bills will pass.

by Kevin Beckman

University of Minnesota Board of Regents election practices were flagged by two bills introduced in the state Legislature this session. 
While the legislation isn’t expected to become law this year, some legislators opened a dialogue on how the 12-member governing body is elected and whether the council that vets them has become too politically driven.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, authored one of the bills, which would repeal the Regent Candidate Advisory Council (RCAC) that recruits, screens and recommends Board of Regents candidates. Under the proposed legislation, regents would  be nominated from each of the state’s congressional districts solely by legislators. 
Pelowski said though RCAC was created to take politics out of regent selection, but the council itself has become too political. Some council members even sponsor and advocate for candidates, he said. 
Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, voiced similar concerns, adding that during the last regent election cycle he observed “brazen indiscretions” committed by the council and its staff. 
A review by the state Legislative Auditor released last July found that a council member inappropriately disclosed private information about a candidate. Though the report said it was unclear if the state’s open data law was violated, the disclosure violated the expectation that RCAC members not share private information with non-council members or staff.
“They raised eyebrows across the board up here at the Legislature with how they conducted themselves,” he said. “That leads me to believe that things are so out of control that the commission itself has outlived its usefulness.” 
Lesch said the selection process is inherently political, but could be much more open and transparent. 
“Legislators, who are directly accountable to the people, can perform that function just fine,” he said.  
Pelowski said the Legislature has also repeatedly ignored the council’s recommendations for candidates. 
“If we’re even ignoring them, then it is time to just repeal them,” he said.
Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, helped create the council in 1988. Now, he is a co-author of the bill to repeal it. He said the council was originally meant to provide a wider selection of candidates, but now only recommends one or two from each district. 
“They give us too few names for a given slot,” Carlson said. “Essentially, they are selecting the regent.” 
Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, serves on the council but also supports measures to repeal it.  
“We have regent candidates running around from December until March campaigning for this thing,” he said. “In the end, in many cases, the RCAC’s recommendation was thrown out.”
Ardell Brede, mayor of Rochester, Minn., and RCAC chair, said the process only becomes more political when the candidates have to get support from legislators after being vetted by the council.
“I think it’s a huge mistake if they were successful in doing away with the RCAC,” Brede said. “The folks that are on [the council] … take this job very seriously.”
Regent Thomas Anderson said without the RCAC, the selection would be entirely up to legislators.
“I think [the RCAC] is the only process where there are some non-legislators saying, ‘We think this [candidate] is good,’” Anderson said. “I actually think it lessens the politicization of it.” 
Rep. Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko, sponsored another bill that would increase discussion around regent selection and make it so legislators from each congressional district could only nominate candidates for their own district.
“That prevents people from any other part of the state from saying, ‘Tthis is the person you should have representing you,’” Sundin said. 
He said that while the bill most likely won’t get a hearing this session, he plans to reintroduce it next election cycle to keep the conversation going.
“It’s going to inspire plenty of discussion amongst the Legislature on how we can do things better and serve our constituency better,” Sundin said. “Given some of the problems that the University system is facing right now, maybe a wake-up call is in order.” 
Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, who sponsors the Senate version of Sundin’s bill, said while the legislation might not go anywhere, the primary goal is to kick-start a dialogue. 
“In order to get people to really talk about something, sometimes you have to put a bill in place,” he said.