Regent selection is subject of new bills

by Tracy Ellingsonand

Candidates for the University’s Board of Regents completed last month what many call a long, political and flawed selection process.
Although many legislators are happy with the newly elected five-member slate, they have expressed dissatisfaction with the selection process. And no one at the state Capitol is really sure what will best solve the problem.
“I doubt whether we’ll ever be able to devise the perfect system,” said Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, “at least, if you define perfect by all Minnesotans’ (standards).”
Despite Moe’s doubts, a few legislators are trying to find a better system. Four bills affecting regent selection will be introduced in the Senate today. The bill’s companions await hearings in the House.
Each bill varies dramatically from the others, but all are designed to eliminate what sponsors see as the major flaws of the current system.
The Process
The University of Minnesota’s 12-member governing board consists of eight seats representing each of the state’s congressional districts. The remaining four at-large seats include one student regent. Regents serve six-year terms, with one-third of the board up for election every two years.
Candidates who apply to be regents go through several rounds of interviews before they actually appear before the Legislature. The first group to screen candidates is the Legislature-appointed Regent Candidate Advisory Council.
The council, which is made up of 24 Minnesota residents, recruits candidates and narrows the pool of applicants, eventually choosing between two and four candidates for each vacant seat.
The council-selected candidates go before the legislators from their congressional districts at a caucus meeting. The district caucus then recommends one candidate to the joint House and Senate Education Committee, which makes its own recommendation that becomes the slate of candidates for the final vote.
Finally, the full Legislature votes on that slate of candidates.
A troubled passage
This year, people at every step along the way have said that regent selection has been unsatisfactory for a long time. Only recent controversies involving tenure and faculty unionization — controversies that caused dissatisfaction with the board in general — have brought the issues to the forefront.
“Reform has been a long time coming,” said Regent-candidate Carol Ericson, an early favorite for this year’s opening in the 4th District. “My candidacy has brought some important issues to the fore.”
After her second election to the board in 1995, then-Regent Jean Keffeler wrote to and met with the advisory council to express her displeasure with the process she had just undergone. She cited low attendance by legislators at committee meetings and “abnormal voting practices among council members” as serious flaws in selection.
Nedra Wicks, a member of the advisory council, said the process is difficult for the candidates to go through — especially for a job that’s voluntary. “Some candidates would probably use the word ‘humiliating’ (to describe the process),” she said.
The advisory council was formed in 1988 to cut back on what many saw as a political process with too much backroom politicking between legislators and the candidates. To some observers, not much has changed regarding the political nature of regent selection.
Ericson, who eventually lost her bid for a seat to David Metzen, said she never realized how politically charged the process would be.
“Congressional representation can be used for political reasons,” said the Roseville Schools superintendent. “It’s so tightly controlled at such a local level, and so it might be more easy to be politically controlled.”
Ericson said she spent a great amount of time meeting legislators. However, she said that endeavor was not completely successful.
“There was certainly some pretty obvious resistance to giving me time,” she said. “Schedules were set up to the advantage of certain candidates.”
Two of the three House bills introduced so far address who appoints the members of the council and how many members should serve on the council.
One, sponsored by Rep. Tony Kinkel, DFL-Park Rapids, would eliminate the congressional representation that he blames for most of the partisan politics.
“I can tell you, after being here 11 years, it’s a straight party line vote,” Kinkel said at a recent press conference to introduce the bill.
Rep. Peggy Leppik, R-Golden Valley, who serves on the House Higher Education Committee and is a co-sponsor of the Kinkel bill, said that although this year’s selection process was one of the least partisan in her memory, a few districts’ legislators found themselves entangled in partisan politics once again.
“If you’re looking to get the very best regents you can have,” Leppik said, “(regent selection) does need to be a little more separate from the Legislature, because the Legislature is always going to make it highly partisan.”
Another complaint about congressional representation was that the congressional district system eliminated good candidates from competitive districts while allowing weaker candidates to advance in the process. Under the Kinkel bill, two strong candidates from the same district, such as this year’s 7th District opponents Herbert Chilstrom and Bob Berglund, could both serve on the board at the Legislature’s discretion.
“Congressional representation limits the ability to capture the best talent on the slate,” Ericson said.
The University of Minnesota Alumni Association proposed a solution last month that would increase the governor’s role in the process. Under the alumni proposal, the governor would take the recommendations of the council and nominate candidates from each congressional district. Then, the governor would forward those names to the Legislature for approval, much like judges and executive branch officers.
“I believe it’s helpful for the governor to have a role in the process because I think one individual can be more responsible for ensuring that a more diverse outlook is brought to the board,” said Regent Michael O’Keefe, who regained the 5th Congressional District seat he received in November when Gov. Arne Carlson appointed him to replace resigning Regent Jean Keffeler.
Leppik offered that if the governor plays a larger role in the process, the partisanism might be alleviated.
In fact, some players say the legislative steps should be eliminated from the process completely.
“I would cast a vote for taking them out of the loop. It needs to be a very careful objective look at qualification,” Ericson said. “When you get it in that other arena (the Legislature), it’s bound to be other complexities that play role in the process.”
The “cesspool link” –congressional caucuses
When Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, introduced the regent selection bill with Kinkel last month, she called the congressional caucus process the “cesspool link” of the entire regent selection cycle.
“That’s the place where legislators just don’t take enough interest, and they cannot show up or send in a proxy or tell candidates one thing and by secret ballot gain a chip with somebody else by voting another way,” Greiling said. “I just think that has nothing to do with good policy or serving the University or the State of Minnesota,” she said.
In the past, other regent candidates have experienced trouble with the congressional process.
Current Regent H. Bryan Neel, who just won reappointment to his 1st District seat, in 1991 found himself in the middle of a party-line battle.
That year, the District 1 caucus, which was made up predominately of Republican legislators, voted overwhelmingly to endorse Neel over his opponent, James Manahan. But in a surprise move, the joint Education Committee, a majority DFL body, overturned the recommendation 30-23, leaving Neel to scramble for votes from the full Legislature and leaving Republican legislators with a bitter feeling about the system.
In the end, Neel’s lobbying efforts worked to his advantage, but the sting of the obvious partisan action lingered in the minds of legislators. This year, however, Neel was recommended by all three committees, though some DFL members lobbied for Neel’s opponent, Thomas Stoa.
House Education Committee chairman Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, who was a key player in designing the current process, said he’s not sure the process is political. “I don’t know that I agree that the selection process was particularly partisan,” he said.
Moe said the district caucus system caused a problem for him, but he could not get the support to change it before now. “I disagree with that process, and I wanted to get rid of it this year, but everybody else didn’t want to,” he said. “So I had to move ahead with it the way it was.”
Even those who complete the often-thorny selection process with a seat on the board have expressed frustration with the current routine.
“The process could be a little more efficient and reasonable for the candidates,” said O’Keefe.
Other proposals
Kinkel’s bill, which is being carried to the Senate by Sen. David Ten Eyck, DFL-Brainerd, calls for changes to board membership guidelines. Regents would represent regions rather than specific districts. Four members would come from the seven-county metro area, another four from non-metro areas and the final four would remain at-large positions.
In addition, Kinkel has proposed that advisory council membership decrease from 24 to 16, with five members appointed by the House speaker, five by the senate majority leader, four gubernatorial appointments, and one senate minority leader and one house minority leader appointments.
“We hope that makes (the process) a little more bipartisan, and we hope, frankly, that the governor takes it a little more seriously,” he said.
Leppik also wants to change the advisory council composition by allowing the governor to appoint eight members of the council. The House and the Senate will have four appointments each to provide a balance between the executive and the legislative branch.
Leppik’s bill would retain congressional district representation on the board, unlike Kinkel’s proposal.
Another bill, proposed by Rep. Kevin Knight, R-Bloomington, would allow citizens to directly elect members to the Board of Regents during the general election.
Proponents of change suggest that people should be open to whatever will be best, not only for the Regents, but also for the State of Minnesota.
“We’re going to look at all the proposals in a very fair way and look at which one, or combination of proposals, best serves the University and the state,” Carlson said. “Bottom line, the main thing is that you have quality people on the board.”
Not only do the players say that the state’s needs should be considered, they also say there is an evident need to build a stronger relationship between the University, the Board of Regents and the Legislature.
“I think it is important, especially at a time when the University administration and board needs to build a trust,” Ericson said.