Regent Kim lacked crucial political savvy

Regent Hyon Kim’s resignation last week exemplifies the intense political pressures placed on individual members of the Board of Regents. Kim was appointed to finish Ann Wynia’s term in 1994 after state legislators emphasized they wanted a candidate to contribute to the board’s diversity. But in the last couple of months, Kim received increasing criticism from legislators and resigned under pressure after some suggested she wouldn’t have enough support to be re-elected this year. Kim’s short career on the board is symptomatic of the position’s increasingly complex, powerful and idiosyncratic nature.
Political dilemmas, which walk hand in hand with any policy-making body, confront the regents on all levels. They must constantly weigh the competing, often conflicting interests they represent — their respective districts, the University and the state. In the political game, they are often fall guys, but rarely heroes. The position balances a unique, often controversial power between state and local government, the University, and the business community. Regents who can’t balance these interests often receive political spankings, as in the case of Regent Kim, Regent Bryan Neel and former Regent Jean Keffeler.
From the moment they apply or are nominated for the post, potential regents face intense public scrutiny. The job is much like an elected public official — candidates spend months lobbying legislators for support and nominations before the selection process begins. Then, they must get by the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, which is made up of 24 persons appointed by the Legislature. Finally, it’s off to the state Capitol, where they must be approved in joint session. All for a job that doesn’t even pay. Furthermore, regents must campaign for re-election after serving a six-year term, and the advisory council will not endorse regents after two terms.
If the application and re-appointment process sounds hairy, it’s only the beginning of a job full of political maneuvers. Once elected, a regent needs to find political allies within the board, as well as define his or her stance on issues with the University president, the administration and the Legislature. With incentives such as being the subject of harsh editorials and unrelenting criticism, it’s no wonder so few people want the job.
The Legislature will vote on five new regent positions in February, but the number of applicants has dwindled. This year, 91 people applied for five open regent seats. This reflects a downward trend, as 29 applied for one seat in 1994 and 132 applicants vied for four seats in 1991. In addition, the board has received increasing pressure and interference from outsiders, most notably Gov. Carlson. As evidenced in the tenure issue and the attempt to close General College last year, the regents often clash with other public figures.
So, who would want this job, and who could perform it successfully? Only a born politician. Perhaps the saddest aspect of Kim’s story is the fact that someone who could have brought a valued, different perspective to the board was so clearly outmatched in political skills. Hopefully, the next round of appointments will bring regents whose diverse backgrounds are complemented by their political savvy.