Twelve regent finalists emerge

Past lawmakers, ag industry officials and a university president top the list of candidates.

Robert Kennedy speaks to the university board of regents about his qualifications as a potential board of regent at the capitol on Thursday.

Simon Guerra

Robert Kennedy speaks to the university board of regents about his qualifications as a potential board of regent at the capitol on Thursday.

by Ashley Aram

Twelve candidates with backgrounds in law, higher education, agriculture and medicine have emerged as finalists for four open spots on the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Board of Regents. Over three days of interviews last week, 16 candidates made their cases before the Regent Candidate Advisory Council for why theyâÄôre a good fit for the schoolâÄôs governing board. Regents serve unpaid, staggered, six-year terms on the board and are responsible for approving budgets, new building plans and policy changes. A hectic round of voting by the council Wednesday afternoon yielded 11 men and one woman for consideration by the Legislature. The state higher education committees will meet in February to discuss the candidates and will choose a slate of four for final approval by the entire Legislature. The University must replace regents representing Congressional Districts 2, 3 and 8, which include counties south of the metro area, the northern suburbs of Hennepin County and northeastern Minnesota. One at-large spot must also be filled. Two regents are retiring and chose not to seek re-election. Incumbents Steven Hunter and David Larson both reapplied and were forwarded to the Legislature by the advisory council along with two state legislators, the president of the University of Maine and executives of several prominent Minnesota businesses. 2nd Congressional District Steve Sviggum It could have been stiff legs or his eight years as Speaker of the House that made Steve Sviggum stand while delivering his introduction to the RCAC. With 29 years in the Minnesota Legislature, Sviggum claimed the key to success is balance. Sviggum graduated from St. Olaf College, but he said he still likes the University of Minnesota. âÄúI donâÄôt say love because I think our University is in need of some reforms,âÄù he said. Sviggum serves as an adjunct professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and is also involved in agriculture, growing beet, corn and soybean crops with his brothers. He stressed the importance of reform and diversity. But even with his legislative experience and ties to the University, some council members were disappointed with his interview. âÄúI thought he did not give a presentation that would show his [legislative] experience,âÄù council member Richard Ista said. âÄúUnfortunately I didnâÄôt think his interview was up to par.âÄù Laura Brod With six brothers, this small-town Minnesotan is no stranger to being outnumbered by men âÄîprecisely her situation as the only female finalist. A University alumna and, at 39, the youngest regent candidate, Laura Brod showed passion for the University. âÄúThe strength of the mission and the power of the impact of a good education remain as strong as ever,âÄù she said. Brod grew up on a farm in New Prague and graduated from the University with a geography degree before getting her masterâÄôs degree in urban and regional studies from Minnesota State University in Mankato. Brod founded and owned three small businesses and spent eight years in the Minnesota House of Representatives. BrodâÄôs enthusiasm and knowledge of state finance gained a positive response from the RCAC. âÄúHer experience is much beyond her years,âÄù RCAC member Patrick Duncanso n said. âÄúI think sheâÄôs an excellent example of a candidate that we can look at to solve the UniversityâÄôs problems, but also to make the University better.âÄù Tom Devine Tom Devine, an insurance executive whoâÄôs involved in the campus greek community, impressed council members with his knowledge of student life. Devine graduated from the University with a degree in architectural history and business. Devine has volunteered with multiple organizations on campus for more than 30 years. âÄúMy leadership style in all 13 of my major volunteer activities has consisted of vigorous, energetic and consistent involvement in each,âÄù Devine said. Members of the council found his link to the students of the University as a unique quality that would benefit the board. âÄúWeâÄôve had very few regent candidates in the past that have known the student experience better than Tom Devine,âÄù said council member Margaret Carlson. For Devine, four-year graduation, transparency, trust and monitoring institutional performance were key. 3rd Congressional District Norm Rickeman Norm Rickeman, 52, a University alumnus who grew up on a farm in Hutchinson, Minn., volunteers at the College of Liberal Arts and taught a one-credit freshman seminar on creativity. He focused on diversity and equity, stating âÄúequity doesnâÄôt mean treating everyone the same. YouâÄôve got to recognize everyone needs an equal opportunity to succeed.âÄù The council found Rickeman a qualified candidate. âÄúHe gets it,âÄù council member Harriett Porter said. âÄúHis lack of pretentiousness, his thoughtfulness and his words âĦ in my mind qualify him.âÄù But some members worried about RickemanâÄôs intentions. âÄúI think that Mr. Rickeman strikes me as an individual that applied for this position because it was a nice thing to do,âÄù council member David Fisher said. âÄúI just donâÄôt see that as being enough substance to warrant his being elected.âÄù Dr. Roby Thompson Jr . On an October morning last year, recently retired Dr. Roby Thompson Jr. was reading the newspaper when he came across a story on the regents search. âÄúâÄòWhy donâÄôt you do that?âÄù ThompsonâÄôs wife asked. âÄúHaving been out of active participation [at the University] for the first time in my life, I really did feel the need and the want to get involved,âÄù Thompson told the RCAC. He joined the UniversityâÄôs Medical School in 1974 and served as a department chairman, administrator and eventually CEO of University of Minnesota Physicians. Much of his interview centered on his experiences at the Medical School and what his perspective would provide. Thompson emphasized the need for the Medical School to maintain its focus on education, along with research and clinical operations. The Board of Regents currently has two members from medical fields. With the departure of the Medical School Dean Frank Cerra and the presidential transition, many felt ThompsonâÄôs inside knowledge of the University would prove invaluable. David Larson David Larson is unsatisfied with the contributions heâÄôs made to the Board of Regents during his first term. A self-described âÄúchange agent,âÄù Larson said it took him years to fully grasp the complexity and culture of the University âÄî and heâÄôs seeking a second term to finish the job. As a former Cargill executive, Larson described the University in business terms as he talked about borrowing strategies from private industry. Topping his list of changes: a policy ensuring every employee receives âÄúcandid, written, annual reviews,âÄù and the coaching they need to be fully engaged at the University. Another priority for Larson is keeping tuition affordable. In the face of state funding cuts, the University will have to raise more private money for student support, he said. âÄúOur middle-class kids are getting hammered … They have two alternatives. One is to not go to school, which is a disaster âĦ [The other] is to graduate with $25,000 to $30,000 in debt.âÄù 8th Congressional District Robert Ostlund Robert Ostlund, a Minnesota native who went to graduate school for educational administration at the University, was the only candidate with K-12 administrative experience. Many of the skills he acquired from working as a superintendent at schools across the metro area will carry over to a regent position, he said. âÄúI have extensive experience in generating both private and public funds for education,âÄù he said, adding that he has had success when entering new organizations. âÄúI seem to bring a calming influence,âÄù Ostlund said. Some council members had reservations about OstlundâÄôs lack of volunteer experience, but most were impressed with his presentation and found his educational background and experience getting large building projects funded a plus. One council member referred to him as a âÄúwelcomed pillar of strength.âÄù âÄúI strongly endorse any individual who can have 15 referendums passed for money for K-12,âÄù RCAC member Margaret Carlson said. William Burns An admitted workaholic who devotes 70-plus hours a week to his full-time job as a Duluth, Minn. attorney, William Burns said he was unsure if he had the time to commit to being a University regent. âÄúI thought, âÄòWhat have I been preparing myself for?âÄôâÄù he asked. âÄúThe University is a great institution and I canâÄôt think of a more important thing to do than be a member of the Board of Regents.âÄù Although heâÄôs a University of Michigan alumnus, Burns said his work in the Duluth area brought him in frequent contact with the University, and his work on various nonprofit governing boards has prepared him to serve. Burns described himself as a good negotiator and said he takes a collaborative approach to leadership that involves listening to dissenting opinions while trying to reach a consensus. He said he still had much to learn about the University and avoided discussing specific plans, but did say he would like the school to become less reliant on state funding while still remaining affordable for students. âÄúIf the University isnâÄôt accessible to everybody, then it canâÄôt be the institution it should be,âÄù he said. Several council members felt BurnsâÄô interview lacked passion and that he failed to distinguish himself, with one describing it as âÄúdisappointing.âÄù But his strong background and references carried him through. Despite receiving less than half of the councilâÄôs votes, Burns was forwarded as a candidate to the Legislature. Robert Kennedy Described as a âÄújewelâÄù and an âÄúabsolute treasureâÄù by members of the RCAC, Robert Kennedy brings a background and set of skills unique among the pool of candidates. The outgoing president of the University of Maine, Kennedy has dealt with many of the same issues facing the University of Minnesota. Kennedy hit many of the right notes with the RCAC as he discussed his experience shrinking budgets due to state-funding cuts, his efforts to grow research at Maine and his experience commercializing university discoveries. Kennedy unsuccessfully applied to be the UniversityâÄôs president this past fall, and council members questioned him on how he would adapt to being a board member. âÄúItâÄôs very important to maintain that fine line between advice âĦ and providing insight but not micromanaging,âÄù Kennedy replied. âÄúThe board is there to help but not overstep.âÄù A 1968 graduate of the University, Kennedy was quick to flash his Alumni Association membership card during the interview. Although heâÄôs spent his career at schools in other parts of the country, Kennedy is a native Minnesotan who plans to move to Baxter, Minn., when he retires in June. Despite concerns about his residency eligibility, the RCAC advanced Kennedy as a candidate for both the 8th district and at-large spots. David McMillan Positioned at the âÄúapexâÄù of research and development in the state, David McMillan said he thinks the University can do more to take advantage of its discoveries by partnering with private businesses. Drawing on his experience working in northeastern Minnesota for Minnesota Power, McMillan talked about the role the University plays in driving the stateâÄôs economy and opportunities to take advantage of the stateâÄôs resources, like the timber and mining industries. McMillanâÄôs previous experience as chairman of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce appealed to many council members. âÄúWhat can the private sector teach us about raising capital, about employing people, about different business models?âÄù he asked. âÄúThose would all be, I think, enlightening discussions.âÄù Council members were impressed by McMillanâÄôs strong ties to the northeastern part of the state and felt his understanding of the area would make him a powerful advocate for the district. âÄúDavid McMillan âĦ has a longtime 8th District understanding and because of [his work] with the power company, a full understanding of the economy,âÄù council member Lois Josefson said. At-Large Allen Anderson Allen Anderson left his family vacation in Arizona to attend his regent interview. Originally from a farm in Minnesota, he graduated from the University with a degree in agriculture economics. He was commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1969 where he said he developed self discipline and self control. An agriculture industry retiree, Anderson volunteers on the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. He also participates in agriculture placement programs and mentor programs at the University, and is a member of the Alumni Association and Alumni Legislative Network. Overall, members of the council were impressed with AndersonâÄôs well-versed and honest interview. They labeled him as a âÄúquality candidateâÄù who would be capable of holding the position. One council member even went as far to say that he gave an âÄúalmost perfect interview.âÄù Council member David Fisher was especially moved. âÄúThis is the only candidate that I could actually see as the chair of the Board of Regents,âÄù he said. Steven Hunter When asked what heâÄôd learned in his first term as a regent, Steven Hunter talked about the steep learning curve that came with the job. âÄúI knew [the University] was a huge, complex organization,âÄù he said, âÄúBut I had no idea how huge and how complex âĦ It was probably two years before I felt comfortable on some issues.âÄù Hunter emphasized his six years of experience on the board during his interview as he discussed the fiscal challenges facing the University and the steps needed to deal with them. Painful cuts will be necessary in next 18 months, Hunter said, as the University must work to âÄúrightsizeâÄù itself through eliminating programs, bringing down administrative costs through staff reduction and focusing resources in areas of strength. He said he was proud of the progress the University had made in improving graduation rates, but that more work must be done in closing the graduation gap among minority students. Keeping tuition affordable, especially for middle-class students, was another goal of HunterâÄôs. âÄúI think we can do it in a way that leaves the University stronger than it is today,âÄù he said. Hunter also serves as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO labor union, which raised some questions among RCAC members concerned about his ability to separate his union role from his University work.