Regents debate continues

Of Pawlenty’s candidates, only Linda Cohen, who sought the at-large seat, won recommendation.

by Alex Amend

A 20-member joint House and Senate committee voted Tuesday evening on the governor’s picks to fill four open seats on the University Board of Regents.

In a meeting that went an hour overtime, and sent representatives and senators searching for statute books, the committee forwarded three of the governor’s four candidates without recommendation.

This means the candidates didn’t receive a majority vote at the meeting but will be voted on by the full House and Senate.

Of Pawlenty’s candidates, only Linda Cohen, who sought the at-large seat, won recommendation.

The three other governor approved candidates, Peter Bell, Cynthia Lesher and Venora Hung, were forwarded by the committee.

Eleven candidates chosen by the Regent Candidate Advisory Council in January were interviewed by the committee in hopes of securing one of the open positions.

Among these candidates were the four chosen by Governor Pawlenty in the new route to appointing regents. Prior to this year, the RCAC’s recommendations went straight to the Legislature.

But now, many members of both the House and Senate are uncomfortable with the Governor’s new influence.

“I never supported the change,” said Tom Rukavina, DFL Virginia. “Why give authority to the governor that’s not explicit in the constitution?”

Members of the committee questioned Susan Heegard of the Office of Higher Education on Pawlenty’s involvement. Heegard said Pawlenty did not conduct the interviews but knew several of the candidates personally and reviewed the comments made by the three-person team led by Heegard.

She also said that with his new role, the governor has emphasized bringing diversity to the board. The governor recommended three women to the position.

Legislators were given time to question each candidate.

Between the at-large candidates, those which aren’t attached to a specific district, tuition and experience were at the forefront.

“Tuition is the number one issue,” said former Senate DFL Majority Leader Dean Johnson. “It must be both competitive and accessible”

Lesher, a current regent, concentrated on the challenges of the position.

“This is a complex, layered organization and it takes a year, I believe, to learn and be fully functional as a participating board member,” she said in a letter to the committee.

For the student seat, the candidates focused on their own personal journeys.

One candidate, law student Venora Hung, told of her parents struggle to send their children to college after escaping from China.

“When I went to college, I knew that I was going for everyone in my family who didn’t get to go to college,” she said.

Candidates vying for the 5th District seat discussed tuition and enhancing research opportunities.

“Being a regent is one of the highest honors a citizen has,” said Peter Bell who is seeking re-appointment to the board.

Bell said his goals include, increasing the number of federal research grants, community outreach, improving graduate rates and managing tuition hikes.

After the candidates presented themselves, the members of the committee deliberated over the wording in the statute regarding the recommendation of the governor’s candidates.

The voting brought confusion over whether or not the committee could recommend candidates that were not recommended by the governor for the floor vote.

The committee led by co-chair Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL St. Paul, decided against recommending non-governor approved candidates.

>- Courtney Blanchard contributed to this report.