U’s ‘student regent’ is a regent first

Jim Martyka

Sitting in the middle of a crowded coffee house sipping an almond latte, Jessica Phillips speaks quietly but with enthusiasm. A casual observer would be unlikely to pick her out from the mass of students gathered in the cafe.
But unlike any of those students, the recent graduate from the Morris campus is the youngest person at the University with the power to help reshape the face of the school.
And according to those who work with her, on the job Phillips is anything but soft-spoken.
“She takes the University issues very seriously and she’s very passionate in what, I think, is a very difficult role,” said Regent Patricia Spence.
Phillips, 21, is the youngest member of the University’s Board of Regents, the school’s governing body. Since beginning her term in spring 1995, the Virginia, Minn., native has become known as the “student regent.”
And her past experience in student government both in high school and at the University have earned her the title.
While attending Virginia High School, Phillips was class president for three years as well as an active member of various student groups. At the University, Phillips was a member of the former Freshman Council before becoming a student representative to the regents. Midway through her sophomore year, Phillips was recommended to the state Legislature as a regent candidate, and in a surprising upset stirred by political controversy, won the seat.
Phillips, who will serve until 2001, said the campaigning itself gave her a lot of experience on the administrative level. She now uses this administrative know-how, along with her experiences as a student, to guide her in decision making, she said.
Even though her position is equal to any other regent, Phillips’ reputation as a student regent has made her a lightning rod for negative feedback from other University groups.
“I’m not supposed to represent students in the literal respect, but I do bring those issues to the board,” Phillips said. “But you’re also in a position where you can’t please everyone and you will receive criticism.”
She’s gotten this kind of criticism ever since her appointment, which was plagued by rumors that she won because of political affiliations with a member of the regents’ advisory council. Shortly after her appointment, Phillips was criticized by her opponents and local media.
“I guess people were afraid about what kind of person would be voicing the student opinion,” Phillips said.
One group that has been particularly critical of Phillips since her arrival is the Progressive Student Organization. “Yeah, they really don’t like me,” said Phillips.
Representatives from the group said that a general feeling of a closed-door relationship exists between PSO members and Phillips.
“I am not aware of anything she has done to maintain relations with students or to act as a voice of the students,” said member Jennifer Udelhofen. “She’s in the position where she should make the outreach a little more.”
Members have also said that they have tried to communicate with Phillips, especially on student issues such as raising tuition, but have been unsuccessful.
Phillips said she blames the PSO for some of the lack of communication; she said she has yet to hear from the group, or from several others on campus.
“I don’t know what’s expected of me at times by groups because people never talk to me, and that’s a problem,” Phillips said. “It’s strange.”
Phillips said that the place student groups talk to her most is Morris, where she received her bachelor’s degree in speech communication. Ironically, Phillips has a strong relationship with PSO members on that campus.
Despite her chilly relationship with the PSO, representatives of the Minnesota Student Association feel that Phillips has been relatively open to students and their concerns.
“While she has done a good job of leaving the door open for us, she has also left the door open for other University outlets like faculty, which is also important,” said MSA President Jigar Madia. “But MSA is going to continue to push her very hard to take a more aggressive stance on student issues.”
Since joining the regents, Phillips has been outspoken on many issues of importance to students, especially keeping tuition low. This year, Phillips has been one of several regents who have made a push to keep tuition from rising by more than 2.5 percent, roughly the rate of general inflation.
“Obviously, I have more keen interest in those issues, like tuition, which I will fight every year to keep low,” said Phillips. “All I can do is bring up the issues.”
Regents also say that they often rely on Phillips to bring student concerns to the board. “We look to her for that student voice,” Spence said.
But Phillips said that her role is not solely to be a student representative. She said she has been told by administrators to consider herself a regent who also happens to be a student, rather than vice-versa. Most people on campus, she said, don’t understand that.
“I don’t think people understand my role,” said Phillips. “I also have to deal with University issues beyond those that have direct effect on students.”
Colleagues said that Phillips has done good work throughout her term.
“Even though she is a student regent, she does a good job at looking at what is best for the University as a whole, which can be difficult at times,” said Regent H. Bryan Neel.
So far in her term, Phillips has encountered several University issues. On the surface, she has appeared quiet, but underneath that demeanor Phillips has strong opinions, which she has shared with regents.
When a proposal to close General College was released to the media before the board had a chance to review it, Phillips was outspoken in her opposition to the plan.
When a debate about tenure, which was sparked by provisions regarding layoff authority in a proposal drafted by the regents, divided the University, Phillips felt that the plan’s language was misleading and potentially harmful.
“I think it was a bad way to go in terms of language, just horrible,” she said. “It wasn’t meant to be harmful, but could have been perceived that way.”
Currently, Phillips has been a leading board advocate of increasing faculty salaries, a stand backed by University administrators. And with the recent appropriations approved by the Legislature, Phillips said faculty salaries will increase.
Phillips is also the acting chairwoman of the regent’s facilities committee, where she is dealing with the huge problem of deferred renewal at the school. Currently, the University would need almost $1 billion to complete all of the renewal projects needed to bring University buildings up to par. Phillips’ committee is charged with investigating this problem.
Beside her regent’s activities, Phillips also works as an inventory analyst in the music department of Best Buy, where she purchases compact discs. For now, she hopes to go back to school eventually and earn a graduate degree in business. After her term expires, Phillips says, she does not plan to pursue other political positions.
“But who knows — plans may change,” she said with a shrug and a smile.
When she’s done, Phillips said she hopes to be remembered as someone who brought issues to the board and represented University groups, especially students.
And though the students who sit in the coffee shop continue to complain about their situation at the University, one among them actually leaves knowing she can do something about it.