Regent process argued

Elena Rozwadowski

Gov. Tim Pawlenty passed his recommendations for new University regents to the Legislature on Thursday for the first time in Minnesota history, but it might have also been the last.

A bill introduced in both houses last week would scrap the multiple-month regent search process and return to the regent search as it exists in the state constitution.

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To follow House bill 820 and senate bill 776, go to: www.leg.state.mn.us/leg/legis.asp

“In some respects, what we did 150 years ago is probably better than what we do now,” said the House bill’s co-author Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul.

The bill’s sponsors are seeking to dissolve the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, a 24-member regent search team selected by the Legislature since 1988.

Although the council has been around for nearly two decades, lawmakers amended the process in 2005 to include the governor.

Instead of submitting their final candidates directly to the Legislature as they had done in the past, the RCAC passes them to the governor who then makes his recommendations to a legislative committee.

This adds another step to the process that some say has become too complex. It might have even caused the lack of interest in the open positions last fall, which ultimately pushed the application deadline back about a month.

Mahoney said the biggest issue for him is the amount of power the governor has over regent selection.

“The Senate and the House are supposed to take care of the peoples’ business,” Mahoney said. A return to the original search process, he said, would allow the Legislature to select regents who “reflect the population.”

“That’s what the people of Minnesota had in mind when they put the constitution together 150 years ago,” he said.

While the bill’s authors see promise in the old search process, Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Sandra Pappas, DFL-St.Paul, said this return would not be ideal.

“People think that we should go back to the old days,” Pappas said. “Somehow people have memories that that was better.

“There are certainly problems with the process, but I don’t think they can be fixed by blowing up the system,” she said.

Pappas described the old system as a “free-for-all,” where candidates would simply talk to legislators about becoming a regent. Sometimes, caucuses supported the candidates from their congressional district.

Ultimately, a 75-member joint committee would select the new regents, she said.

“It was not a smooth, easy process before,” she said.

Mahoney said there will probably still be an application process, but everything would go directly to the joint education committee, skipping the first two steps of the current system.

RCAC Chair Bob Vanasek said the process has been successful.

“One of our charges is to recruit qualified people,” Vanasek said. “I thought we had a strong field this year.

“From that standpoint, we did our job pretty well.”

But Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said there is too much process that likely deters many qualified candidates from applying.

“The process has become so convoluted,” said Hansen, who helped author the House bill. “It leads to less transparency and less accountability because it’s just process, process, process.”

Hansen said a return to the original selection procedures would see high quality candidates vying for the positions. Finding these candidates, he said, is one of the Legislature’s responsibilities.

He said he did not know enough about this year’s finalists to speak of their caliber, a problem that a return to the “default” method would fix.

“The University is very important for the state of Minnesota, but it is a separate entity,” Hanson said.

He said the one place where the state has a say in the University is in its regent selection.

“It’s good for regent candidates to get to know legislators and ask for the job,” he said.

Vanasek said he stands by the process, but ultimately, the fate of the RCAC rests in legislators’ hands.

“The council is a creature of the Legislature,” he said. “If they choose to go another direction, that’s up to them, and I’m not going to presume to tell the Legislature what they should do.”