Controversy, job demands lead to small regent pool

by Joel Sawyer

Serving as a member of the Board of Regents can be a thankless task. No pay, long hours, and an endless barrage of criticism makes the job unattractive to many.
And that is a problem, especially with a search underway to fill the five seats on the University’s 12-member policy-making board that will open this spring.
The board’s lackluster image has not made the task easy for the panel responsible for recruiting prospective regents. The 24-member Regent Candidate Advisory Council, which consists of community and business leaders from around the state, has struggled to find a pool of interested and qualified candidates.
The council, which began seeking applicants in October, fell well short of the number of candidates they hoped to get by their Dec. 16 deadline. Despite a last-minute surge of applicants, only 91 people applied for the five positions. Council Chairwoman Mary McLeod said she expected 150 applicants.
Candidate recruitment went so poorly that McLeod wrote editorials in several state newspapers to appeal to potential candidates for the positions.
Candidates could either apply or be nominated by council members or legislators. The panel has the task every two years of recommending regent candidates to the Legislature, which then appoints them.
Because regents serve staggered six-year terms, four board members are up for re-election every two years. When regents’ terms expire they can choose to run for re-election or step aside, allowing other candidates to vie for their seats.
This year, Regents Stanley Sahlstrom and Wendell Anderson decided not to seek re-election. Regents Hyon Kim and H. Bryan Neel are running for their second terms.
A fifth seat became available when Jean Keffeler resigned last fall. Keffeler’s Fifth Congressional District seat has been temporarily filled by Michael O’Keefe, who was specially appointed by Gov. Carlson in November to occupy the post until the Legislature selects a replacement.
O’Keefe, the executive vice president of the McKnight Foundation, said he would serve out the remainder of Keffeler’s term, which ends in 2001. However, O’Keefe’s position on the board is not guaranteed because he must go through the same selection process as the other regent candidates.
The departures of Anderson, Keffeler and Sahlstrom mark the second time in two years that three new members will be elected to the board. In 1995, Regents Warren Larson, Jessica Phillips and Patricia Spence won at-large regent appointments.
The advisory council will narrow down the pool of candidates to six per district this week and interview potential finalists later this month. When the council decides whom to interview, the names will be released to the public.
The council will forward two to four names from each district to the legislature by Feb. 1. Although Regents Kim, Neel and O’Keefe are current board members, there is no guarantee that they will be interviewed and selected as finalists.
The Legislature will select new regents from the recommended pool or nominate their own candidates if they deem the council’s candidates inferior. The final selection should take place by Feb. 20.
Those selected as regents are expected to work about 40 hours a month without pay. This time includes preparing for and attending monthly and special meetings and serving on other University-related boards and committees. Regents also serve as liaisons between the University and Legislature, and business and community leaders.
“I think it’s become quite apparent to some people that it’s a pretty major undertaking, and you have to do a lot of homework and be prepared to know what you’re doing,” Neel said.
The time commitment, along with the negative publicity the regents have received, may have contributed to the small pool of applicants, Kim said.
In the past year, the regents have been assailed for their handling of the tenure issue and for what many perceived as their flawed search for a new University president. Some public officials, including state legislator Phyllis Kahn, have called for the entire board to resign.
“There’s a lot of cynicism and criticism from the public,” Kim said. “Many people might shy away from that criticism.”
Kim may be facing a difficult re-election battle. More than 40 of the 91 applicants are from the Fourth District, which she represents.
She has also been criticized as not being qualified to be a regent, a claim she says is wrong.
“This will be a tough battle for me,” she said, “but perseverance and tenaciousness are in my nature.”
Another reason for the lack of interest in regent posts may be what some call the degrading and overly-politicized regent selection process.
In past searches, candidate names were forwarded to the Legislature in March. Lawmakers would then discuss the candidates and make their decisions in late April or early May.
The long wait was difficult for many candidates, McLeod said.
“The candidates feel they have to be lobbying for months,” she said. “For some that’s repugnant, for others it’s simply frustrating and mystifying,” McLeod added. “There are lots of people who are savvy in other respects who don’t feel comfortable at the State Capitol.”
Neel and Kim agreed that the process is highly political, but said they do not find the process completely distasteful.
“It can be an onerous task in terms of consumption of time,” Neel said, adding that he enjoyed talking to legislators about University issues.
“The process is tough,” Kim said, “it’s work … but you don’t have to beg. You’re not a dog.”
The council decided to expedite the process this year by recommending candidates earlier in the legislative session. This will allow lawmakers to quickly review and decide upon candidates before they become burdened with difficult legislative work, McLeod said. It should also cut down on the amount of time candidates will have to spend lobbying at the Capitol.
Despite the small pool of applicants and the negative criticism the regents have received, several prominent names have been mentioned as possible candidates.
Former Secretary of Agriculture Bob Berglund and retiring state Rep. Bob Anderson are reportedly in the running for Sahlstrom’s Seventh District seat. Former House Speaker Harry Sieben is rumored to have applied for Anderson’s vacant seat in the Sixth District.
Even though the job is difficult and time-consuming, Kim and Neel said serving as a regent is a worthwhile experience.
“Education is really the central part of my professional life,” Neel said. “To serve on the board of regents … is absolutely exhilarating. It can be nerve-wracking, but it’s also a huge privilege.”
Kim said the job was one of the most important in the state. As a regent, she said, “You are right in the middle of important process of making the University better in the next century.”