UMN to return land, Board of Regents approves public engagement pilot

During the University of Minnesota Board of Regents’ February meetings, the regents announced a review of the University’s conflict management plan for administrators and voted to review the University’s data practice policy.


Image by Photo by Maya Marchel-Hoff

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents Feb. 10, 2023 at the McNamara Alumni Center.

by Olivia Hines and Maya Marchel Hoff

At the University of Minnesota Board of Regents February meetings on Thursday and Friday, board members discussed returning land to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and voted on expanded public engagement opportunities with regents.

The regents also announced a review of the conflict management plan for University senior administrators, discussed University data practices policies and addressed the Fairview-Sanford merger.  

Plans to return land to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

University President Joan Gabel announced the University’s intent to return the land the Cloquet Forestry Center (CFC) currently occupies to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The CFC sits on nearly 4,000 acres of land, some of which was seized after federal and state governments gave the University access to land on the Fond Du Lac reservation in 1909. 

“This is a historic moment and an important moment,” Gabel said at the meeting on Thursday. “It represents a deep and meaningful step in our commitment through the strategic plans to build strong relationships with all of our Tribal nations and Indigenous communities and partners.”

The 1862 Morrill Act allowed states to establish public colleges and universities on areas obtained through public land grants. Through this process, states took 10 million acres of Tribal land, according to the National Archives and Records Administration.

Through additional late-1880s acts, the U.S. government transferred “unallotted” Fond du Lac lands to Cloquet lumber companies. After extensive logging, the lands were transferred to the University to be used as an experimental and demonstration forest. For years, leaders of the Fond du Lac Band have been asking the University to return the land. 

The University is currently mapping out the land return process and has no specific timeline moving forward yet. 

Gabel said the University has been working with state agencies to navigate the legal processes for land return and will hold a series of public engagement opportunities along the way. The University hopes to maintain forestry training on the land in partnership with the Fond du Lac Band, according to Gabel. 

“A lot of the Tribes we’ve talked to, I think all 11 Tribes, have concern about this matter, and I think we are moving in a very good direction,” Regent Tadd Johnson, the University’s first Native American regent, said. “I know we’ve got a long way to go.” 

A new avenue for public engagement, but still no in-person comments 

The regents voted unanimously on Friday to approve a pilot plan for increased public engagement with the board. The Office of the Board of Regents will construct a platform for the public to submit comments to the board and will launch it for a trial period of five months in September. 

Over the past few months, the regents have discussed what engagement may look like after Regent James Farnsworth brought a resolution forward in June 2022 that requested the board develop a new framework for receiving public comments. 

Currently, the board only accepts public comments through requests the board chair approves or during a one-hour slot at the annual budget forum in May.

“I am supportive of this today, I think it is moving us in the right direction,” Farnsworth said at the meeting. “I hope to explore additional and expanded ways to increase our public engagement as a board.”

Regent Darrin Rosha proposed an amendment that would add quarterly opportunities for public comment in front of the board. The amendment failed 3-9. 

“I think we should fundamentally have that opportunity for live presentation…it’s very valuable for the public to have that,” Rosha said at the meeting. 

Many of the regents who passed on the amendment argued the board needed more time to consider how these in-person engagement opportunities would work.  

“One of the principals when you are proposing something new is to be able to evaluate changes in isolation to see what is working and what is not working,” Regent Kodi Verhalen said at the meeting. “I would ask that instead of doing any amendment right now, that we move forward with the pilot program as it has been proposed.”  

Reviewing the conflict of interest management plan following Securian

Powell requested the board’s Governance and Policy Committee take up review of the University’s institutional conflict management for senior leaders at the institution at Friday’s meeting.  

This request comes two months after criticism of the conflict management plan the board approved in December for Gabel spread. The plan the board approved would have allowed Gabel to accept a position on Securian Financial’s board of directors, however, critics raised continued concerns over possible conflicts of interest because the University contracts with Securian. Gabel resigned in January from Securian’s board. 

“Any potential policy changes will emerge from a collaborative and consultative process,” Powell said at the meeting. “The goal here is to ensure that our policies align with best practices.” 

Data fees discussion is referred to the next committee meeting

Farnsworth introduced new business to the board on Friday related to fees associated with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (DPA). The Minnesota Department of Education guide for members of the public requesting data information states Minnesota statutes authorize charging people for copies of requested government data. 

Farnsworth issued an amendment to exempt the Minnesota state Legislature from being charged for public data requests by the University. 

“I don’t think we should be subjecting entities that have oversight and funding relationships with us to this administrative procedure,” Farnsworth said. 

The purpose of the charges is in part to reflect the University’s investment in its staff, so every request could receive “top-notch professional support,” Gabel said.  

Administration would prefer to schedule a discussion for a future board meeting to review the implications of exempting one group versus not exempting other groups from public data request charges, Gabel said. 

Regent Janie Mayeron moved to refer the matter to the board’s Governance and Policy Committee. 

“I think it needs the proper study and response by the administration,” Mayeron said. “There’s just lots of unanswered questions before we make this change in policy.” 

Regent Steve Sviggum voiced his support for the motion. He said it is unfair that one group can be exempt from charges and others subject to them. 

“I can guarantee you that I’m the only bad person in this room who voted for the DPA and exempted myself when I did it,” Sviggum, who served in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1979 to 2007, said 

Rosha said people were not charged for data requests before the DPA. 

“[Someone’s] ability to pay determines whether they can afford to get information about their land-grant state University,” Rosha said. 

Rosha said the University should stop charging anyone who makes public data requests, especially the Legislature, which helps fund the University. 

Sviggum said he was “appalled” and “dismayed” by Rosha’s comment, to which Rosha responded, “I’m fine with that.” 

The board voted to refer the matter of public data request charges to the Governance and Policy Committee, which is scheduled to meet next in June. 

Rosha moved that all charges for data requests by legislatures and other state constitutional officers be suspended until the Governance and Policy Committee can review the matter.  The motion was passed. 

Fairview-Sanford merger stands in UMN’s way to reacquire facilities 

During the Friday meeting, board Chair Kendall Powell referred to his remarks about the Fairview-Sanford merger from the December board meeting.  

“The future of the medical school and its role of service to patients and public health to Minnesota is on the line with this proposed merger,” Powell said. “Minnesota should know that its medical school is a crown jewel and essential public good.”

The medical school trains 70% of the doctors in Minnesota and is number two in the country for primary care training. The medical school is on track to become one of top 20 programs in the nation, a status it has not held since 1990. 

“Fairview’s CEO recently characterized the University as an ivory tower,” Powell said. “The University faculty are on the front lines of health care doing everything humanly possible to save lives and treat human illness — that is no ivory tower.” 

Powell called upon Sanford Health and Fairview to publicly endorse the University’s five-point plan to reacquire medical facilities and build a campus hospital. Powell also asked Fairview to retract its March 31 deadline to complete the merger. Later that day, Fairview and Sanford Health announced they would delay the merger completion deadline to May 31

“They are not business demands, they are a public call for an insurance of good faith and a commitment to put the public first,” Powell said.