Regent picks: a clean ‘slate’

by Tracy Ellingson

All five regent candidates recommended by the state’s joint Education Committee last weekmade the final cut Thursday when the Legislature approved their appointments to the University’s Board of Regents.
Incumbent regents H. Bryan Neel of the 1st Congressional District and Michael O’Keefe of the 5th Congressional District will return to the board.
The other new members are David Metzen, St. Paul school superintendent, of the 4th District; Maureen Reed of the 6th District, a doctor and medical director for contracted care for HealthPartners; and Bob Bergland of the 7th District, former secretary of agriculture under President Jimmy Carter.
Five of the 12 regents seats became vacant this year when four of the members’ six-year terms expired and 5th Congressional District Regent Jean Keffeler stepped down from her position in November. Gov. Arne Carlson appointed O’Keefe to fill Keffeler’s seat until the next selection took place.
O’Keefe will nevertheless serve a truncated term; his seat will come up for selection again in 2001, when Keffeler’s term would have expired.
Despite the fact that the Legislature used a regents selection process that has been recently marred by criticism, the final vote indicated little dissent among the legislators.
The new regents finished a nearly two-month process. This included being selected by the Regent Selection Advisory Council, approved by their congressional districts’ caucuses and approved by the Joint Education Committee. These five candidates became the “slate.”
But in several districts, legislators had the option to vote for one of several other candidates nominated immediately before the vote took place. A majority of legislators voted for the entire slate in the final vote, including Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents the East Bank campus.
Neel received more votes against his election Thursday than any of the other candidates facing nominated opponents. Sen. Allan Spear, DFL-Minneapolis, nominated candidate Thomas Stoa, a physician from Winona, to be considered a contender for the 1st District seat.
Neel and Stoa faced off earlier this month when seeking their district caucus’ recommendation. The district caucus’ recommendation is passed onto the joint Education Committee for consideration before its vote.
Stoa did not receive either the caucus’ or the joint Education Committee’s recommendation, but several DFL legislators have rallied for him over Neel, including Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents the University’s East Bank campus.
“Two basic things that he handled very badly as a regent were the steam plant and the tenure issue,” Kahn said of Neel, who was the regents’ vice-chair.
Kahn supports proposals to move the University’s steam plant away from its current location along the Mississippi River and opposed changes to the tenure system proposed by the board last year. Kahn said Thursday that she felt every member of the previous board should resign and be replaced by all new members. She added that O’Keefe, who she supported for a seat, joined the board after the problems occurred and so should not be included in this recommendation.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, agreed with Kahn that Neel made poor decisions on some of the previous year’s controversial issues.
“I’m uncomfortable with a lot of the things the regents have done in the past, like the tenure and so on,” Marty said. “I’m not sure that Neel understands the problems that it’s caused.”
But Neel said that legislative appointments, such as selection to the board, always include a level of politics, and the votes for Stoa reflected party support more than a disappointment in his past performance on the board.
“Certainly among legislators … they’re probably unhappy about some of the decisions that have been made,” Neel said. “But that just comes with the territory. Good board members are going to have to be prepared to make difficult decisions and be as compromising and conciliatory as possible in doing so.”
O’Keefe said he is pleased to see Neel return to the board.
“I’ve enjoyed working with Regent Neel over the several months that I’ve been with the board,” O’Keefe said. “And I think he’ll continue to make a good contribution.”
After the final vote, both regents said that their immediate priority as returning members will be opening up communication with President-elect Mark Yudof, who will assume office at the end of June.
“In terms of the agenda, I think a most important item for us,” O’Keefe said, “is to engage in discussions over the next six months or so with our new president to set some expectations for him with what he’s going to accomplish over the next three to five years.”
Neel echoed O’Keefe’s sentiments.
“The most crucial thing the board is going to be dealing with is the presidential transition, supporting the new president and giving him a soft landing,” Neel said. “It appears that he is already off to a good start.”
Several legislators and the governor have commended the previous board members for their selection of Yudof for president in December, when both Neel and O’Keefe were members of the board.
Other candidates nominated Thursday before the vote were Roseville School Superintendent Carol Ericson for the 4th District, who was one of the candidates also selected by the Regent Selection Advisory Council, and former DFL Rep. Bob Anderson of Otter Tail County, who retired from the Legislature last year. Anderson had expressed an interest in the position early on in the process but was not one of the candidates selected by the advisory council.
Ericson competed with Metzen for the joint Education Committee’s recommendation but lost with a vote of 36 to 20. Women’s groups and Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, made an effort to block Metzen’s candidacy and help Ericson earn the recommendation so that the board would have a better gender balance.
Greiling voted for the entire slate of recommended candidates Thursday, however, even though Ericson had been nominated that day and could have received her vote.
Greiling is the co-sponsor of a bill introduced by Rep. Tony Kinkel, DFL-Park Rapids, that would change the selection process by eliminating Congressional District seats and repling them with regional representation — metro vs. non-metro — instead.
House Education Committee chair Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said he expects the Legislature to discuss three specific proposals that have come forward since the most recent search got underway, one of which is the Kinkel bill. Another bill, from Rep. Kevin Knight, IR-Bloomington, would provide for the election of regents by Congressional Districts. A proposal by the Alumni Association has not been introduced in the Legislature yet.
The new regent terms begin in March.