Students reps. on Board of Regents decry limitations

Brad Unangst

Frustrated by a limited ability to comment on issues before the University’s Board of Regents, the board’s student representatives are seeking a policy change that would create more opportunities to voice their opinions.

The student representatives, who speak to the board on behalf of the institution’s students, said they have been struggling with this problem since late 2001, when board officials said the comment policy would be strictly enforced. This summer, there were some regent meetings in which the student liaisons were unable to comment at all, they added.

According to board policy, student representatives are allowed to comment at board subcommittee meetings and in front of the full board only on topics not discussed during subcommittee meetings.

But recent hot-button University issues, such as the current presidential search, the proposed Gophers football stadium and participation in the controversial Mount Graham International Observatory, have progressed without student representative comment and have left them wondering about their role on the board.

All three issues were either discussed by the board during informal work sessions or were not listed on any board meeting agenda.

“We have a lot of stuff to say, and when we don’t get to say it, it’s kind of like ‘Why are we here?’ ” said Allison Rhody, chairwoman of the student representatives. “When it comes down to it, that’s what our role is – to be the students’ voice – and we feel right now that the capacity we have to comment doesn’t allow us to do our job.”

Board officials said the issue is not about more opportunities to speak, but about using those opportunities to provide more of a voice.

Regent Chairwoman Maureen Reed said the students have tremendous opportunities to not only comment on important issues at subcommittee meetings, but also to comment formally on issues that come to the full board in the form of annual reports.

“It is at committee meetings where there is the freest exchange and the greatest opportunity to participate,” Reed said. “To use those opportunities that are right at your fingertips – that is what I see as important.”

Reed said she understands being unable to comment on contentious issues is frustrating for the student representatives, but because of time constrains, the board has needed to keep business moving forward.

Prior to the September 2002 board meeting, Rhody sent a letter to board officials asking for a policy change to allow for a monthly report to the full board. The report would focus on issues important to University students, as well as to keep the board up-to-date on what the representatives are doing, she said.

It would allow the full board to hear students’ concerns about issues that will be discussed at future regent meetings, Rhody said.

The letter has led to a scheduled meeting in November with board administrator Ann Cieslak, where the representatives plan to address their concerns. The students on the board said the meeting is a positive step.

But Rhody warned that if changes aren’t made, frustration could grow.

“Angry might be a way to describe us after we sit down with (Cieslak) and nothing changes,” Rhody said.

Student representative Vice Chair Jacob Elo said he would like to see opportunities to comment expanded beyond just a monthly report.

“I would like to see us be able to comment on anything on the board agenda, including the (subcommittee) reports,” he said. “The (subcommittee) decides on Thursday, but the full board decides the next day, so we’re talking about five or six regents hearing about students’ perspectives when 12 regents are voting on the issue.”

In subcommittee meetings, a fraction of board members discuss agenda items and vote whether to recommend the issue to the full board for approval.

Subcommittee meetings are held the day before the full board meeting, and committee chairs present reports to the full board, typically without much discussion.

Student representatives said while their ability to comment in committee is important and encouraged, they feel their positions aren’t made clear in committee reports to the full board. The process leaves them wondering if their opinions carry any weight with board members, Rhody said.

Two student representatives sit on each of the following committees: Faculty, Staff and Student Affairs; Finance and Operations; Educational Planning and Policy; Facilities; and Audit.

Student representatives are not allowed to vote, but can make suggestions which could take the form of a motion if supported by a regent.

Student representatives may also submit agenda items for discussion in subcommittees, but it is not guaranteed the item will reach the full board.

Regarding the Mount Graham issue, Rhody said the representatives asked for an exception to speak before the full board on Friday, but were denied. Board officials said the issue needed closure and that the body needed to move forward.

The representatives wanted the board to hold off a vote on the issue until some of the conflicting information presented in Thursday’s committee meeting about the project could be addressed.

“We were like ‘hey, we have different things to say now,’ ” Rhody said.

According to the Regent’s Web site, student representatives are elected for one-year terms by the University’s student governments. Four represent the Twin Cities campus, and there is one representative for each of the three outstate campuses.

Of the Twin Cities representatives, two represent the Minnesota Student Association, one represents the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, and one is enrolled in a St. Paul campus college.

For now, the student representatives look forward to the November meeting with Cieslak and hope it will produce change.

“Even though widening our comment capacity might not be a momentous change, I just think that every little step is a big deal,” Rhody said. “The more we give up is less of the voice we have.”


Brad Unangst welcomes comments at [email protected]