Approved?

The University's Board of Regents has approved everything put before them since 1994. Some years they've done so with one dissenting vote.Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series.

Conrad Wilson

The Board of Regents tends to vote “yes” – overwhelmingly. In recent history, they’ve approved everything the administration has put before them.

Tuition hikes, a new stadium bearing a corporate name, a multimillion dollar marketing campaign and the University restructuring that resulted in the closure of General College – the University’s governing body approved it all.

As far back as 1994, the board said “yes” to everything put before it, some years unanimously.

Some University officials, students and regents don’t see this as a problem, but rather a product of how the board functions, while legislators say they would like to see more open discussion.

Voting ‘yes’

In four of the past 13 years, the board approved everything unanimously, according to data synthesized from board minutes.

Of the final votes taken from 1994 to 2006, all of the 859 measures before them passed.

Regents unanimously approved 98.1 percent (843) of those total votes, while only 1.9 percent (16) were contested.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as it looks, because they look so unanimous, but I think to the extent we don’t see more discussion,” said Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, with a laugh.

In numerous board votes from 1994 to 2006, regents have, at times, expressed concern about certain measures, but then voted with the rest of the board to pass it anyway.

During the Nov. 8, 2002 meeting, former Regent Frank Berman voiced concern about retention of quality faculty and staff based on salaries during a discussion of the 2004-05 biennial budget proposal, yet he voted with the board to pass it.

Berman was unavailable for comment.

At the Legislature, Pogemiller said the tendency is to trust the president and the board. However, when the members present a price for the stadium one year, and the next it’s $38 million to $40 million more, “I think that gives people cause for concern,” he said.

In another issue, Regent Anthony Baraga and Berman were concerned with the stadium land deal, but still voted in favor of it.

Pogemiller said he would like to see more diligence on the part of the board.

“I think there’s a concern among some legislators that the board has not been independent enough in the past years Ö to basically challenge, question (the issues),” he said.

University officials and regents said the board process explains the board’s absolute agreement.

“That is not unusual,” said Fred Morrison, law school co-dean and former Faculty Consultative

Committee chairman.

The board meets most months, holding committee meetings on Thursdays and the full board meetings on Fridays.

Both sets of meetings are open to the public.

During the meetings, various branches of the administration present research on measures they want regents to approve. The regents discuss the issues, voting in committee and then again the next day during the full board meeting.

The board sees measures multiple times before voting, Morrison said.

“If there are concerns expressed early on, then the proposal isn’t put forward and is never voted on,” Morrison said. “It’s modified to meet those concerns.”

Former Regent Peter Bell, chairman of the Metropolitan Council and a Republican in Tim Pawlenty’s administration, said unanimous support isn’t a problem.

The majority of the “heavy lifting” takes place in the committees, he said.

Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, the ranking minority member on the Senate Higher Education

Committee, expressed concern about the lack of dissension.

“It surprises me,” she said. “Some of those decisions had to be controversial.”

The University is a public institution operating on public funds, so it’s important to challenge how money is spent, Robling said.

“I like to see open discussion, and I like to see debate,” she said. “When the (University) administration comes in and says, ‘We’re going to recommend a 10 percent tuition hike,’ I wanted to see that questioned publicly.”

Regent David Metzen, the Facility Committee chairman who represents the 4th District, said the board isn’t in the administration’s pocket.

“This is not the Legislature, this is the Board of Regents,” he said. “There’s two different cultures there.”

University President Bob Bruininks is very good at presenting proposals in a way the board finds acceptable, Metzen said.

“That’s the sign of a good leader,” he said. “Part of being a functional board is being in alignment with administration. Alignment is different than rubber stamping. Alignment means that we have a shared vision.”

Pogemiller said differences between regents and the administration should be resolved privately to avoid a board like the one in the 1980s, where internal fights between board members hurt the reputation of both the board and University.

Regents might prefer to operate behind closed doors, where they wouldn’t have to self-censor for fear of public scrutiny and political backlash, said Nathan Wanderman, chairman of the MSA representatives to the board.

Bruininks defended the board’s voting record, saying they’re an independent body.

“If the board has a record of strongly supporting the proposals, it’s because the proposals have been well developed in advance and reflect the best options that we think are available to the University community,” Bruininks said.

Bruininks added that he’s seen more opposition from regents than previous administrations, including President Mark Yudof.

“I don’t think that’s bad; I think all good ideas ought to generate constructive debate,” Bruininks said.

Morrison, who worked with the board, also said it is independent from the administration.

“They really do have a very substantial amount of influence,” he said, “but it is exercised before that final vote.”

Morrison said the final vote represents compromises, so the proposals pass with overwhelming support.

The most important thing is that the process is transparent, said Minnesota Student Association President Max Page.

“I think that in those committees is where it happens for the most part,” he said.

Page, who applied but was not selected for the student regent position, said the process seeks people who are consensus builders, not extremists.

Wanderman said the system works well with a strong

administration.

“I think part of the reason you don’t see many dissenting votes Ö is because the administration has really done a high-quality job, and there isn’t much for the regents to dig their heels in on,” he said.

The ‘U’ poll

Overall, University students, faculty and staff don’t know much when it comes to the board.

According to a 2007 poll conducted by The Minnesota Daily, their feelings toward the board are tepid at best.

The majority of the University community – 71 percent – said they trust the board to make good decisions about the institution’s future, but gave the board a 49 percent approval. By contrast, Bruininks received a 63 percent approval.

Most students and faculty don’t believe regents represent their viewpoints well, according to the poll.

The poll results also show that 56 percent of the University community believes the board is aware of what they want.

Dissent on the horizon?

Pogemiller said the relationship between the board and the president is too close.

“I don’t want to say that (lawmakers) are panicked,” he said, “but there’s kind of a sense that maybe it’s not working as well as it should.”

Former DFL Senate Majority Leader and newly appointed Regent Dean Johnson said he’s willing to be the voice of dissent on the board.

“I guess that I’m an independent-minded person,” he said. “I ask a lot of questions, and I want to know the why/when/where’s of it.

“I don’t think that necessarily there should be this rubber stamping of things.”

Courtney Blanchard, Tiffany Clements, Bryce Haugen and Alex Robinson contributed to this report.