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UMN Board of Regents under fire for diversity concerns

The governing board is currently three-quarters male and has only two regents of color, raising criticism with some campus authorities and legislators.
The Minnesota House and Senate meet in a joint session to vote for new members of the Universitys Board of Regents on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 at the State Capitol.
Image by Carter Jones
The Minnesota House and Senate meet in a joint session to vote for new members of the University’s Board of Regents on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 at the State Capitol.

Some have raised concerns about a perceived lack of diversity and gender-balance on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents election last month.

Concerns were raised after a regents election for four seats resulted in all white men being elected.

The elected — Steve Sviggum, Kendall Powell and incumbents Darrin Rosha and David McMillan — resulted in a board of nine men and three women. The board has two non-white members.

“Clearly it’s imbalanced,” said Regent Linda Cohen. “I don’t think that was a wise choice by the legislature.”

Mismatched Priorities

Lawmakers and members of the Regent Candidate Advisory Council (RCAC) — the body that recruits and screens regent candidates — say many factors and not just diversity are considered when selecting candidates.

“The first thing we should always look at is, ‘who is the best fit for the job?,’” said Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview. “If we’re in a position where we can elect a board that reflects the student body and the University community, then that’s crucial.”

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, chair of the House higher education committee, previously told the Minnesota Daily he doesn’t factor race and gender into his decisions.

“Those quotas to me are just something that I don’t worry about. I should maybe, but I don’t,” he said in a February interview.

Other legislators emphasized a need for the board to mirror the demographics of the state. But troubles that range from the RCAC process to the legislative decision can hamper this.

“The regents should really reflect the population of Minnesota,” said Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley. “That’s something that was definitely lacking this time around.”

Board Chair Dean Johnson said he agreed this election raised concerns over the vetting process, adding there may be a better way to screen candidates to allow for more diversity.

Ardell Brede, chair of the RCAC, told the Minnesota Daily last month that the RCAC should improve its recruiting efforts. “We’ve got to make sure they understand that door is open for them, the same as anybody else.”

The higher education committees didn’t have many diverse candidates forwarded by the RCAC to choose from, said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, a member of the RCAC and the House Higher Education committee.

Of the 12 finalists forwarded to the joint legislative committee, two were women and none were people of color.

The RCAC always looks to recruit diverse candidates, said Terri Bonoff, an RCAC member and former chair of the Senate higher education committee. But ultimately those most qualified are the ones who survive the vetting process.

“It isn’t enough to be diverse,” she said. “You need people who have the experience and have the time.”

Johnson said because of the election results, the board will work harder to be more conscious of diversity issues.

“We can’t change what the Legislature has done, but we need to have a higher sensitivity and be more educated about issues of diversity at the University,” he said. “We’ll do the best we can.”

Student Investment

This year’s process also lacked student input, said Abeer Syedah, Minnesota Student Association president and RCAC member.

She said the timeline of the process, which mostly occurred during winter break and finals, made it difficult to hear from students.

Overall though, she said only a few students seemed interested in the elections.

“In general, students don’t always know what’s going on with the regents process,” she said.

Trish Palermo, MSA president-elect, said students may not always realize that issues are regent-related.

“Most people don’t know what the board of regents is,” she said. “You never really have a student say, ‘please tell the [board] this.’”

It’s up to student government leaders to raise awareness of the board, Palermo said.

Callie Livengood, student representative to the board last school year, previously told the Minnesota Daily that the makeup of the board impacted decisions, like delays to implementing affirmative consent.

“As much as [the regents] try not to, their backgrounds influence the way they act and speak in committees, so we need to have diverse perspective from their backgrounds,” she said in a February interview.

Partisan Politics

A letter signed by more than 30 student leaders to the joint legislative committee that forwards regents finalists to the full Legislature highly-ranked Sandra Krebsbach and Tammy Lee Stanoch.

DFL politicians said they were vying for them, but a Republican majority overruled them.

“In the end, the [Republican] majority was going to vote how they wanted to vote,” Pelowski said.

Some regents agreed the process needs to become apolitical.

“I think that the process should be divorced from politics, and it wasn’t,” Cohen said, “It should have been based more about what’s going to be the most helpful to the University.”

Still, not all Republicans were on the same page. Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said he’d have preferred to see more diversity added to the board to better reflect and serve state constituents.

“You wind up with a very homogenous looking board, which I don’t think creates the level of intellectual discussion that the U seems to be wanting to be famous for,” he said.

A Slow Crawl to Balance

According to surveys by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges — a national organization made up of various university college boards — racial minorities make up less than a quarter of higher education governing boards. Female representation on boards is about 32 percent, according to the 2016 survey.

The University’s first female regent, Alice Warren, was appointed in 1922.

Thirty years later, in 1953, the first woman was appointed by the Legislature — Marjorie Howard.

In 1971, Josie Johnson was picked by the Legislature as the first African-American regent.

The first Latina regent, Maureen Ramirez, was elected by the Legislature in 2007.

Isaacson said a more diverse and balanced pool of applicants — and a subsequently more balanced board — could be more attainable if the Legislature gave more resources for recruiting.

“I wonder how hard we tried to go and find those people,” he said. “I wonder if we tried hard enough.”

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