Regents’ top risk: losing freedom

The board put maintaining its autonomy from the state at the top of a list of pressing issues.

Blair Emerson

University of Minnesota leaders operate independently of the state, and they want to keep it that way.

The Board of Regents has put autonomy from the state at the top of its 2014 “institutional risk profile” draft, which is a list of pressing issues for the institution that some regents will review Thursday.

Some board members say the University must work to actively maintain its identity as a separate entity from the state Legislature.

State legislators tied 5 percent of the University’s fiscal year 2015 appropriation to certain requirements, which included improving graduation rates for low-income students, raising overall graduation rates and decreasing administrative costs by $15 million for fiscal year 2014.

Although the University announced in a press release last week that it exceeded each of the Legislature’s five performance measures to receive the funding, some regents say these types of metrics trod perilously close to breaching the University’s autonomy.

Board Chair Richard Beeson said regents chose autonomy as a high-impact, high-likelihood issue on the institutional risk profile because they want to pay close attention to maintaining independence.

“It’s a sensitivity that the board has as it goes forward, because there’s only so far that we will agree to conditions and terms,” Beeson said. “We’re not interested in having increased measures like that imposed on us.”

The last institutional risk profile was completed in 2009. It focused on risks within the school’s administration and operations, rather than within the Board of Regents like the recent one. Only in recent years did the board get involved in the profile’s creation, adding autonomy to its list of issues to address.

“Autonomy is always an issue for an organization like the University of Minnesota,” Beeson said. “Having it on the risk profile, I think, is healthy for us as a reminder to ourselves that we are the responsible party for approving policies and budgets for the University.”

President Eric Kaler said the University has a privilege and a responsibility to act independently.

“It is one of the great strengths of the University: the ability for us to operate as the Board of Regents sees fit, and to not be subject to political pressures from the Legislature,” he said.

The University was founded seven years before Minnesota became a state, and that’s when it established its autonomy.

At the school’s inception, the board became the school’s official governing body under the University’s charter, which is outlined in Minnesota’s 1851 Territorial Laws. That charter was later confirmed in the state’s 1858 constitution.

“It’s good for a board like ours to remind ourselves that we have that autonomy and that there’s a line there,” Beeson said.

And keeping that line sometimes takes poise, other regents said.

“It’s really finding that balance between recognizing a lot of the funding comes from the state — and we need a positive partnership with the state — while doing our duty, which is to represent the University as an autonomous entity,” said Regent Laura Brod, chair of the Board’s audit committee that prepared the draft risk profile.

Other top risks in the recent profile include data privacy and information security, student demographics, and enrollment strategies.

 The regents’ audit committee and University senior leaders have been in collaboration for the past two years to compile the list, ranking their impact and likelihood on a low-to-high scale.

Each school administrator has created a risk profile for his or her part of the University, including the Office of Information Technology and the Office of the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost.

“Each one of the senior leaders has a risk profile, and we’re not intending to trump their profile,” Brod said. “We just want to make sure we’re all kind of on the same page relative to the potential risks and the possibility of mitigating them or managing them.”