Episode 84: Meet the new regents

In this episode, we talk to three of the four newly elected regents, including James Farnsworth, Kodi Verhalen and Ruth Johnson, about their backgrounds and goals for their six-year terms.


by Ava Kian, Yoko Vue, and Abbey Machtig


AVA KIAN: Hello everyone, I’m Ava Kian.

YOKO VUE: I’m Yoko Vue. And you’re listening to “In the Know,” a podcast by the Minnesota Daily.

VUE: On March 15, the Minnesota State Legislature voted to elect four new regents to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. Regents, who are unpaid, hold a lot of decision-making power at the U. They vote on key decisions like tuition increases, policies and long-term initiatives. The board is composed of one member from each of Minnesota’s eight congressional districts and four from the state at-large. Each regent will serve a six-year term. For this story, we spoke to three of the four new regents, since regent Doug Huebsch said he wanted to settle into the role before appearing on the podcast.

 Staff reporter Abbey Machtig helped us report on the new board. To start us off, she spoke with fourth-year student James Farnsworth, who was elected to the Fourth Congressional district seat. He discussed his previous experiences, and what he hopes to bring to the regents. 

JAMES FARNSWORTH: I’ve spent the last four years, or all throughout my time at the university and undergrad, in student government in shared governance. So whether it was serving in the senate or serving on senate committees or serving on MSA and was a candidate for the Board of Regents two years ago when the student’s seat was up and didn’t end up getting it, but was a candidate again this year and then ended up getting elected.

VUE: Farnsworth is working towards completing his degree in human resource development. Aside from his experience on campus, he is the executive director of the Highland Business Association in Saint Paul. For Farnsworth, listening is an important part of being a leader, so being accessible to the University community is crucial to him.

FARNSWORTH: It’s important for a leader to take in as many different perspectives as possible. I like to soak up a lot of information and I like to talk to the people that are most impacted by it, or would be most impacted by a specific decision, and especially folks who maybe haven’t always had a voice at the table or been represented. 

VUE: Farnsworth said that it is a critical time for the University and that his experience with university governance gives him a unique background that allows him to have a baseline knowledge of the operations of the University.

FARNSWORTH: Figuring out how the university is going to navigate out of the COVID-19 pandemic and by navigate, I mean, whether that’s working through the budget deficit that has been created due to COVID-19, whether that’s looking at the lessons learned from the pandemic, in the areas of educational delivery, campus, operations, that type of thing. 

VUE: According to Farnsworth, one of his strengths is his connections to groups on campus. 

FARNSWORTH: By having existing relationships with everyone from the president, the provost, to different student groups, to having been a member of the SSF committee for a couple of years. So, I learned a ton about different student groups on the Twin Cities campus from having served in the senate and working in collaborating systems with system-wide students.

VUE: Farnsworth spoke on a few issues ranging from renaming campus buildings — which you can read more about in Abbey’s article linked in our transcription — to his stance on tuition, a topic that heavily impacts students. 

FARNSWORTH: I’m interested in, especially as we are getting towards discussing the budget, I am going to be very hesitant to support any tuition increases because I don’t think that’s what we should be doing to students right now, especially coming out of the pandemic. I’m very interested in looking at continued administrative cost reductions and what other kinds of class reductions we can do to make sure that we don’t balance that budget on the backs of students.

VUE: Policing on campus has also been a topic of discussion at the University that Farnsworth wants to explore. 

FARNSWORTH: UMPD I think the conversation about policing on campus is incredibly complicated. I’m really glad that we had that report by Dr. Alexander as a good place to start. I have admittedly have not fully reviewed the report, which is something I need to do and I hope that students in particular can be centered in that conversation around what we do to change policing on campus. 


KIAN: I spoke with the newly elected Regent Kodi Verhalen. Verhalen was born in Minnesota, but she spent her early childhood in Northwestern Wisconsin. In 2004, she graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a degree in chemical engineering. She later decided to pursue law school. She began working at Briggs and Morgan in 2009, practicing energy and environmental law. 

KODI VERHALEN:  What I love about being a lawyer, which is what I loved about being an engineer is finding the creative solution, taking all the information that is available, finding some additional information, sometimes that isn’t on its face and pulling that all together to really create a well-reasoned decision or well-reasoned plan of action.

KIAN: She says her experiences as an engineer, lawyer, and mother bring a unique perspective to the Board of Regents. She was elected to the Sixth Congressional district seat. 

VERHALEN: I know there are several different lawyers on the Board of Regents, but we all have our own experiences and really trained in different areas, practiced in different areas. And all of that comes together as a body of 12 people who are making decisions in the best interest of the University. And I think the one thing that I have learned along the way that was taught to me a long time ago is in any new situation, you have three jobs: it’s to listen, learn, and understand.

I think one really unique perspective that I’ll be bringing is that I have a child who is in elementary school and very young in elementary school. And thinking about what her education trajectory might look like going forward will be a unique perspective.

And that’s what I’m really looking forward to doing as a regent and really kind of pulling those perspectives that I have both as an engineer and a lawyer, but also as a mom, as someone who’s basically grown up in Minnesota, not been here my entire life, but basically someone who attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth, someone who has dealt with student debt myself and understanding that.  

KIAN: Verhalen said that the diverse lives and perspectives of women are needed in leadership roles.

VERHALEN: Late Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, before her death, during one of her presentations was asked how many women would be enough women on the Supreme court and she said nine, which would be a hundred percent women. I think it’s a really great accomplishment that there are five individuals who identify as women on this board of Regents. It brings an opportunity to bring their own experiences just like it does with any individual.

KIAN: A popular criticism of the Board of Regents is the disconnection between the board and students. Verhalen says listening to students would be the first step to bridge this gap. 

VERHALEN: I could come to them and ask a bunch of questions or speak to my experiences, but I really want to hear from them, what are they experiencing? What are they facing? What are their challenges? What did they think would be helpful? 

KIAN: She expects connecting with students and the other regents to be more difficult because of the pandemic. 

VERHALEN: I mean, this is totally an experience where coming onto a board like this, it would be ideal to have everyone get together for a dinner somewhere at somewhat of a midpoint point or in connection with a board meeting, so we can all get to know each other in that casual conversation environment. Those side conversations around the dinner table or those side conversations around coffee are so valuable. And I think what coronavirus and the global pandemic currently mean in that regard is that it’s really important that I be intentional about finding those opportunities.

KIAN: Verhalen wants to make sure the regents consider the five system campuses and consider looking at tuition. 

VERHALEN: There’s a huge amount of activity, obviously that occurs at the Twin Cities campus, with students, with research, with community outreach, with sports, with athletics, et cetera, but there are four other campuses in greater Minnesota that are also really important to the state and to the University. And I want to make sure that they are being considered when issues are coming up to the Board of Regents as appropriate. 

KIAN: She hopes to leave a lasting mark on the University, and specifically looks forward to creating change in a collaborative environment. 

VERHALEN: I want to leave the University a better place than I found it. I think the value of the University of Minnesota to the state of Minnesota is really important. And the more we can do as an institution to increase the awareness of all of the different facets of life that the University of Minnesota touches and improve upon, the better we’ll be as a state to understand where we can really push ourselves forward and challenge ourselves.


KIAN: Newly elected Regent Ruth Johnson is a fifth-generation Minnesotan. Johnson went to Augsburg University and then moved to Rochester for medical school. She is an internal medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic and was on the Board of Regents at Augsburg University for 16 years. 

RUTH JOHNSON: I, you know, had experience working with Boards of Regents learning what they do and the kind of the role of governance as opposed to management so on. And it was a great experience. I’ve been very active in education at Mayo and that’s, that’s one of my passions.

KIAN: Johnson was elected to the First Congressional district seat. She says her love of the state is why she wanted to join the board. Her father was a graduate of the University in 1951, and her daughters also graduated from the University of Minnesota. 

JOHNSON: So I mean from, you know, parents to the next year, down the next generation had people involved in the University. And it really is, you know, it’s a great kind of flagship research University in the state. It’s a huge engine of education and the economy for Minnesota. It’s just really, a most important educational institution. 

KIAN: Johnson was also the first woman to serve as Associate Director of the Mayo Clinic Internal Medicine Residency program. For the last 17 years, she has been on the admissions committee protocol MD-PhD program.

JOHNSON: I’ve had wanted to open the doors of educational opportunities to women, because particularly in some of these science things were still somewhat under underrepresented and also for all groups that are in the, sort of cohort of people who have been traditionally underrepresented. And so, I’ve had the opportunity to interview and kind of advocate for, and try to recruit and mentor, young women and others, BIPOC and other students as much as possible to help them develop successful careers in medicine.

KIAN: When I asked her about what it means to have five women on the board now, Johnson reflected on her first days in medical school. 

JOHNSON: My first year of medical school, there were 600 physicians on the staff at Mayo and only 15 were women. So I think that’s like 2.5%. It’s pretty small. So you know, just because of the era, when I started this, I’ve just really saw, you know, starting at a small thing and then really increasing significantly over time.

KIAN: Her experience as a doctor brings a unique perspective to the regents, especially during a public health crisis. 

JOHNSON: I think that there’s no physician on the board right now. And just think with COVID and all this going on and all the decisions that had to be made with that, as well as some of these kinds of academic health center things, I just think I could contribute some unique, you know, insight and experience from my own career that would be helpful on the board. 

KIAN: From her time on the board at Augsburg, she learned how to recruit a more diverse student body. To connect with students, she’s hoping to speak with the regent student representatives, in addition to general students.

JOHNSON: During my third and final term on the board, Augsburg really has made some incredible strides in terms of developing a more diverse student body. And learned, I think some things that were successful in recruiting those students and then retaining them, working with them and, and making it a positive environment.

People need to, they need to have others on the campus who understand their experiences, who can work with them and know what their particular needs and concerns might be. So you need to work to increase the diversity of the faculty and the staff as well, and then programs that are helpful for student success. 

KIAN: She hopes to increase the medical school’s standing, which is currently ranked 27th in the nation, according to the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research.

JOHNSON: I remember I believe when I was younger the University of Minnesota medical school had been in the top 10.  It’s really been an excellent school and they’ve had pioneered things like heart transplants and other transplants and a lot of important work. But their ranking, had gone down over time, some degree. They’re back at leave number 27, which is granted there are 155 accredited medical schools in the United States… but I think we all believe we can go up. 

KIAN: The regents we spoke to have begun familiarizing themselves with different aspects of the Board, to prepare for the next virtual board meeting in May. Looking forward, policing and campus safety issues, COVID-19, and tuition seems to be on the new regents’ minds. 

OUTRO MUSICMEGAN PALMER: In other U News: a Monday night shooting in Dinkytown resulted in one person dead and one person hospitalized; a new Dakota language house will open in University housing next fall; and the case of State v. Derek Chauvin began on Monday and is expected to last two to four weeks. We’ll see you in two weeks when we come back from spring break.