Delayed regent election sparks concerns among lawmakers

If House and Senate leadership cannot decide on a time to vote on new regents, Gov. Tim Walz will appoint regents.

The Minnesota State Capitol on Saturday, Nov. 18.

Tony Saunders

The Minnesota State Capitol on Saturday, Nov. 18.

Isabella Murray

A decades-old process to elect University of Minnesota regents could be disrupted if lawmakers cannot agree on candidates. 

House leadership has twice postponed a joint House and Senate meeting to choose the two at-large seats, the student regent seat and the 5th Congressional District seat up for election. A division in the House about which slate of regent candidates should be selected has sparked this delay, lawmakers say.

“The process was meant to choose the best qualified people and take it out of partisanship, and that’s what appears to be happening here,” Senate majority leader Sen. Paul Gazelka, R- Nisswa, said. “It’s billions and billions of dollars that [the regents] oversee, so we have to make sure that we have the most qualified people based on their abilities and not based on something else.”

Like past regent election years, a bipartisan citizen committee, the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, voted in February to forward a total of 16 regent candidates to the Legislature. House and Senate higher education committees then put forth a slate of five candidate recommendations for the final step of the process, the joint convention of the entire House and Senate.

House higher education committee chair Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, said the coordination of a joint convention rests now in the hands of House and Senate majority leadership. 

“I haven’t been in those conversations, but we want to make sure we get really good regents for the University of Minnesota and we have amazing candidates and I’m confident that we’ll get good regents for the University of Minnesota in the end,” she said.

Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the House higher education committee and the People of Color and Indigenous DFL caucus, said the slate of candidates the joint committee recommended doesn’t accurately represent the POCI caucus’s goals for the board. 

While Democrats have more votes in a joint convention, the 19 POCI caucus members are sticking by their slate of candidates, which differs from the joint committee slate, Gomez said. The POCI member votes may be significant in choosing the board, she said. 

“We made it clear to leadership what our selections would be,” Gomez said. “The POCI caucus sees this as an opportunity to bring people of color and indigenous people to the board of regents. By saying we care about racial equity, that when our voices are in the room, that can change things.”

If the joint committee doesn’t meet by the time session ends on May 20, DFL Gov. Tim Walz will select  candidates as two year board appointments.

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said two year appointments to the board would create an insecure position for regents. Regents would prioritize reelection over policy if only elected for two years, he said. 

“The beauty of a six year term is that you hunker down and get to work. If you’re a two year appointee, you’re only an appointee,” Abeler said. “You’re a second class regent.”

Gomez said she is comfortable with Walz selecting regents. 

“Gov. Walz and Lt. Gov. Flanagan have expressed their support of lifting up leadership of people of color in their institutions to get that racial, gender and geographic diversity,” Gomez said.

The regent selection process has come under recent scrutiny in recent years over its increased politicization. But Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said he still thinks the process is necessary. 

“[The regents forwarded are] not all my first choices but you’re never going to get all your first choices,” Draheim said. “As much as I think the whole process is a circus, it still is a process, and I think people work really hard on it and try to do what is best for the University.”