An Experiment Gone Partisan

Although the board of regents is not political, the new regent selection process is that and then some.Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about the University Board of Regents. Tomorrow’s story will focus on the board’s voting record

At the Capitol, everything’s political. Even things that shouldn’t be.

The University will officially welcome four new Board of Regents members after a long, convoluted and highly criticized selection process.

Maureen Cisneros, Dean Johnson, Venora Hung and Linda Cohen will officially start their terms in May.

As Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty weighed in on the process for the first time, the Capitol erupted in controversy over what lawmakers found to be a newly politicized process.

Although the board is not a political body, the candidate selection became increasingly partisan.

Ultimately, this new method raised questions about lawmakers’ roles in regent selection and whether they have the University’s best interests in mind or their own political ideologies.

Partisan selection

Outgoing regents included Peter Bell, a Republican in Pawlenty’s administration and chairman of the Metropolitan Council.

“The regent selection process has politicized (the board) to a degree that could be problematic,” Bell said.

Two of the governor’s recommended candidates, Cohen and Hung, were appointed. Legislators selected Hung, a University law student, for the Fifth District seat that the governor intended Bell to fill, and put Cisneros, who is pursuing a master’s in advocacy and political leadership, in the student slot.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said the process didn’t work well this year.

“I think there’s been an attempt to take the politics out of the process, and I think it’s just moved the politics down to an advisory committee level,” he said. “I don’t think you can take the politics out of it.”

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, the ranking minority leader on the House Higher Education Committee, said he doesn’t think there’s a way to make it nonpolitical.

“I thought we had actually created something that might work pretty well,” said Nornes, who helped create the current process.

“It’s always going to come down to who has the most votes, the Republicans or the Democrats, and whoever does seems to prevail,” he said.

Pogemiller called the current Regent Candidate Advisory Committee, to which applicants apply, “too indirect,” saying the Legislature should take responsibility for naming candidates.

Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, the ranking minority member on the Senate Higher Education Committee, said the process worked until it hit the legislative step.

“Then it took on a life of its own that became very political; I think it was unfortunate,” she said.

Governor’s role

Lawmakers ignored Pawlenty’s role in the process.

Unlike past years – when the Legislature took candidates from the RCAC – this year, the governor selected finalists from that advisory committee who were then passed on for legislative approval.

However, the new regent selection process was not followed, Nornes said. The finalists should have come from the governor and then the Legislature should have approved or denied them.

If denied, the governor should have put forth another name from the pool of applicants, Nornes said.

Lawmakers thought the governor would help depoliticize things, Nornes said, because “he appoints a lot of folk to different positions, and they aren’t all Republicans.”

But Pogemiller said the governor should stay out, arguing that “the Constitution doesn’t call for it.”

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, criticized Pawlenty for not taking the authority granted to him. He never met with any of the candidates, which meant legislators didn’t give much consideration to his selections.

The governor could have had a better chance of getting his selected candidates – including Bell and outgoing Regent Cynthia Lesher, who lost reappointment to former DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson – through the process had he personally interviewed them, Kahn said.

Nornes agreed, saying Pawlenty should have met with each candidate personally.

A Pawlenty spokesman said that with the exception of Hung, the governor personally knows the candidates he nominated.

Kahn said the governor should have sat down with legislative leaders to negotiate the “regents’ slate,” compromising to allow both Johnson and Bell appointments to the board.

Nornes said he doesn’t know what Pawlenty could have done.

“I think it would have been a futile effort in the first place,” he said.

After a speech on campus Monday, Pawlenty said the regent selection process “was designed to be better, but it really was a disappointment.”

While he praised the work of the advisory council and appreciated his role in making a recommendation, Pawlenty said his role was largely ignored and the process was politicized in the end.

“Without casting any aspersions on this year’s finalists or appointees, I would say we have to do better at getting higher-quality regents for the University of Minnesota,” he said. “This year’s process doesn’t look like it was any better in that regard than the last (one).”

Bell advocated for the governor’s role in the selection because of his involvement in education policy. The governor plays a key role in determining the state’s contribution to the University.

“His position in terms of the University Ö is very, very important and so for him to be involved in the selection of regents Ö is critically important,” he said.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said the process this year was an experiment that worked “semi-OK,” but it would’ve been better if Pawlenty met with the candidates.

University officials declined to comment on the selection process. “At the University, we traditionally don’t take a position on that,” said University spokesman Dan Wolter.

Politics weigh in

A nonpartisan candidate gained the greatest support from lawmakers.

Kahn said Cohen received nearly unanimous support because many considered her the least political.

But politicking muddied subsequent appointments. DFL leadership stood behind Johnson and touted him for his experience and not his partisan background. He will bring a rural perspective and a military background to the board, Kahn said.

Johnson served in the Senate for more than two decades and ended his career as DFL Senate majority leader. He lost re-election in November.

Although Kahn and Pogemiller acknowledged that Johnson’s reputation as a well-known Democrat didn’t hurt him, both said he was appointed with bipartisan support because of his stature and qualifications.

Some say his appointment, however, was a partisan one. Johnson would not have been approved had Republicans been in control of the Legislature, Pappas said.

His appointment “was purely political,” Robling said. “He was just turned out of office by his own constituents and his creditability was damaged significantly last year.”

Johnson said he’s voted for regents since 1979, when he started his tenure in the Legislature; the process has always been political.

“I could not begin to tell you, of my other board members, what their political persuasion is,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter. It’s a nonpartisan board.”

Lesher, who lost her re-election bid to Johnson, said she’s not bitter about losing. Although she said she is apolitical, Lesher will serve as the president of the Minnesota Host Committee for the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

Bell also has political ties to the governor, but Kahn said politics didn’t weigh in on Bell’s failed appointment.

Legislators saw a potential conflict of interest with his position on the Metropolitan Council. The University is currently discussing the Light Rail Transit Central Corridor on campus.

There were actually few instances where the two positions would be an issue, Bell said. In fact, he said many regents have conflicts of interest.

Nathan Wanderman, chairman of the MSA representatives to the Board of Regents, said Bell’s conflict of interest was no worse than other regents. For example, Regent Patricia Simmons is a physician at the Mayo Clinic, but abstains from votes involving the clinic.

A broken system?

All politics aside, sources have indicated the regent selection process remains flawed and, in the end, only hurts the University.

Bell said he was disappointed with the outcome and the politics involved in the process, but supports the new regents and “fully assume(s) they will do a great job.”

“I don’t think it’s good for the University if you have Democratic regents or Republican regents Ö or even the perception that there’s Democratic or Republican regents,” he said.

Although, Bell openly acknowledged he is an “unapologetic Republican,” he said the issues regents deal with don’t fall along partisan divides.

“Look at my voting record as a regent,” he said. “Could you have predicted, given that I’m a Republican, how I voted? Ö I think the answer to that would be no, and I think that’s what the public wants.”

The future

Lawmakers on both sides have the same goal to correct and depoliticize what has become a mystifying process.

Republicans tend to support the governor’s role in the process, while DFLers want to repeal it.

Buried in the House higher education omnibus bill, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, wrote legislation that removes the governor’s advisory council from the process.

Rukavina, chairman of the House Higher Education and Work Force Development Policy and Finance Division Committee, said the governor wasn’t involved until two years ago.

on the web

To read more about the laws which the Regents operate under, go to: www1.umn.edu/regents/polaws.html

Pappas wrote a similar bill currently in a Senate committee which keeps the advisory council in place.

Rukavina said it’s a violation of the Legislature’s authority to let an advisory council interview the candidates.

No matter how the process is changed it will still remain political, Wanderman said.

“You don’t want the quality candidates to run into a road block just because of political pressure,” he said, “and I think that’s probably what happened.”

The effect of the political process makes regents “afraid to go out on a limb with the idea that the next time around the political process will turn against them,” he said. “I think a lot of folks, at least in a public meeting setting, are reluctant to challenge the status quo.”