‘Political’ regents process to end

A legislative vote will end a controversial regents selection cycle in St. Paul.

After a months-long search, four candidates were recommended for the open spots on the University of MinnesotaâÄôs governing board. But today they face the 201 members of the state Legislature with no guarantee theyâÄôll be the final pick.
Two former Republican state representatives âÄìâÄì Laura Brod and Steve Sviggum âÄìâÄì top the list of Board of Regents candidates along with David McMillan, a utilities company executive from Duluth, Minn., and David Larson, a board incumbent.
The four emerged from a field of 12 after a joint meeting of the higher education committees last week that left many legislators disappointed and disillusioned with the process.
The committee vote fell largely along party lines and was preceded by closed-door partisan meetings to build support for candidates.
Among those left out was AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Steven Hunter, an incumbent seeking re-election described as the âÄúworkhorse of the boardâÄù by one legislator. He was passed over in favor of Brod.
âÄúOn its face, it appears to be the most overtly political regents-selection process that weâÄôve had in some 150 years of doing this,âÄù said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFLâÄìInver Grove Heights.
A joint convention of the Legislature will hold a final vote Monday, but legislators are not obligated to vote for the recommended slate.
The 12 candidates have spent months campaigning to legislators and will see those relationships tested during the vote. Hunter said heâÄôs talking with Republicans in hopes of gathering enough support to win back his seat.
With majorities on both the House and Senate higher education committees, Republican legislators were able to choose the candidates they wanted without the need for bipartisan support, said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul.
âÄúThey had the votes, they had the numbers. They went with their candidatesâÄù she said.
Atkins and Pappas said previous DFL-led selections resulted in Republican regents, and were less centered on the politics of candidates and more on their skill sets.
Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, who chairs the higher education committee, said the selection process worked and resulted in four well-qualified candidates. She said she didnâÄôt think it varied much from previous selections.
âÄúWhen [the DFL] controlled the process âĦ they elected folks they liked,âÄù she said.
Atkins said he worries the politicized process could deter future candidates from applying for regents spots.
But the politics of the selection donâÄôt translate to actual governance, said Clyde Allen, chairman of the Board of Regents. He said regents avoid partisan politics and instead focus on the best interest of the University.
The chosen four
The recommendation of Brod and Sviggum to a board that already has one former legislator caused the biggest stir of the selection process.
Pappas said having three legislators on the board would be âÄúinappropriate,âÄù and limit the views on the board. She said Brod and Sviggum should have been screened out earlier in the selection process.
âÄúItâÄôs really too hard [for legislators] to turn down their colleagues,âÄù she said. âÄúThey donâÄôt look at what the board needs or what their qualifications are because theyâÄôre buddies.âÄù
Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, admitted Brod and SviggumâÄôs familiarity around the Capitol gave them an edge, but said the two bring qualifications beyond their legislative experience.
He praised BrodâÄôs energy and willingness to speak her mind during debates.
Brod grew up on a farm in small-town Minnesota and was one of seven members from her family to graduate from the University.
As a regent, she said she would challenge the status quo by questioning how tuition is structured and the quality of the schoolâÄôs programs.
âÄúI think that weâÄôve got to focus our resources to make sure weâÄôre providing the best education we can at the lowest cost,âÄù she said.
Sviggum, a former House speaker, emphasized his legislative experience during his interviews, but he also owns a soybean farm and brings agricultural experience to a spot being vacated by the boardâÄôs only working farmer.
Sviggum said the University needs to do more to market itself to the Legislature and heâÄôd work to improve the relationship between the two.
The key to garnering more financial support from the state, he said, is for the University to measure and promote its performance in areas like graduation rates and student retention.
Brod and Sviggum supported University funding cuts as legislators but said they would be advocates for the school as regents.
âÄúAs a legislator, I had to balance all the needs of the state âÄìâÄì the agendas and the interests,âÄù Sviggum said. âÄúNow I can be a little more focused.âÄù
David McMillanâÄôs extensive experience with northeastern Minnesota, the district he would represent as a regent, was a big factor in his selection.
An executive with Minnesota Power, McMillan emphasized the uniqueness of the region and the opportunities the areaâÄôs natural resources offer the University.
Recently retired Cargill executive David Larson was the only candidate to receive bipartisan support from the higher education committees, in part due to his six years as a regent.
Larson talked about the steep learning curve that comes with being a regent, and said he wants to use his experience to help new regents and University President-designate Eric Kaler.
Building a better board
The new regents will take office immediately after todayâÄôs vote, and the board will look much like it always has.
There are no minority candidates, and Brod is the only female among the 12. If chosen, Brod would be the fifth female on the board and one of its youngest members at 39.
The UniversityâÄôs board is ahead of the national average for gender diversity, but lags behind other public institutions in minority representation, according to a study by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
The boardâÄôs members come from similar backgrounds, with heavy representation from the business and medical communities.
The UniversityâÄôs board make-up is fairly typical, said Princeton University professor Stanley Katz. Boards are heavily involved in the policy and financial aspects of the school and the membersâÄô experiences generally reflect that.
Katz, who has served on university governing boards in the past, said he thinks having voices representing higher education and K-12 education can benefit boards.
A university president and former superintendent of the Wayzata school district were two of the regents candidates not recommended.
âÄúWhatâÄôs ordinarily left out,âÄù Katz said, âÄúis people who are both knowledgeable and reflective of what the purposes of higher education ought to be.âÄù