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The Minnesota Daily

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The Minnesota Daily

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Meet UMN Board of Regents candidates: District 8, at-large

Candidates for the University of Minnesota Board of Regents from Congressional District 8 and one at-large seat share about themselves and their vision for the board leading up to this spring’s election.

This spring, the Minnesota State Legislature will be electing candidates to fill four open seats on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents.

In January, the Regent Candidate Advisory Council (RCAC) at the Minnesota Legislature recommended 12 candidates to move on to the regent nomination joint committee for the next step in the selection process. The joint committee, composed of representatives and senators from the higher education budget and policy divisions, will choose candidates to recommend to state lawmakers during the joint vote session.

There are four seats up this year: Congressional Districts 2, 3 and 8 and an at-large seat.

Six candidates for the District 8 and at-large positions answered questions from the Minnesota Daily about their campaigns for the board and how they intend to serve as regents if they are elected.

District 8 (Susan Cohen and Tadd Johnson)

Susan Cohen is the president and founder of the Center for Regulatory Research, which provides regulatory support for businesses that deal with agricultural technologies. Cohen also worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (USDA APHIS) as a plant pathologist.

Gov. Tim Walz appointed the current regent for the district, Tadd Johnson, in 2022 after former regent David McMillan became the interim chancellor of the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD).

Johnson served as the first senior director of American Indian Tribal Nations Relations at the University. Prior to this role, he joined the American Indian Studies Department at UMD and served as director of the Tribal Sovereignty Institute. Johnson holds a law degree from the University’s Law School and served as a Tribal attorney for more than 35 years.

At-Large (Val Aarsvold, Mike Burns, Rebecca Siekmeier and Flora Yang)

After finishing her undergraduate education at the University, Val Aarsvold taught in Wilmar and Plainview public schools for seven years. In 2001, she became the executive director of the Minnesota Future Farmers of America (FFA), where she currently helps support more than 40,000 students across the state in preparing for futures in agriculture, food and natural resources. Aarsvold is also a member of the University Alumni Association and was a finalist for the First Congressional District seat in 2021 but lost to Regent Ruth Johnson.

Before running for the board, Mike Burns was the University’s men’s gymnastics head coach for 17 years, until the program was eliminated in 2021. Prior to coaching at the University, Burns coached at other schools, including the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan. Burns currently coaches the University’s club gymnastics team.

Rebecca Siekmeier served as the director of the SciTech Internship Program at the Minnesota Technology Association, where she helps connect students to internships and jobs in the STEM field. Siekmeier attended the University as an undergrad and received a scholarship for being on the University’s women’s track and field team. She later returned to earn a master’s degree in public affairs.

Since middle school, Flora Yang has taken classes at the University and is currently a senior. Yang was elected the undergraduate student body president in 2022 and has helped lead multiple student advocacy efforts. Last year, she served as the ex-officio student representative to the board. After graduating in May, Yang will attend the University’s Medical School with a focus on the rural health pathway.

Why are you running for the University of Minnesota Board of Regents?

Cohen: “They [regents] have a big impact on students and education at all levels…as I went through college, I had to work my entire way through it. I am sensitive to students and want to be sure the regents understand and evaluate all options.”

Johnson: “I have been preparing for this my whole life…I’ve spent a lot of time being heavily engaged at the Legislature and have taught the U [University] how to do outreach to Tribes.”

Aarsvold: “I feel their [students’] stress; the system needs to support them as well…we owe it to them to make it a part of our focus. My own children were at the University when I ran [for the board] two years ago, and I recognize the way I can continue to address the needs of students.”

Burns: “My justification for putting my name in a position to the Board of Regents isn’t because I’m the upset coach that lost his programming. For the last 17 years that I was an employee, it was really easy to sell this place, and I feel like it’s getting harder and harder to do that. I think it’s based on some of the decisions that have been made at the Board of Regents.”

Siekmeier: “The trajectory of my life changed in extraordinary ways when I became an undergraduate student athlete on the women’s track and field team at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1981. I’ve been a volunteer, donor and supporter of the University for decades, and it would be a tremendous honor to give back as a member of the Board of Regents, helping other students reach their full potential.”

Yang: “As the ranking student representative to the Board of Regents last year, I saw a lot of the gaps in transparency and accountability within the board. Some of these gaps were, frankly, not super hard to fix. I have a lot of thoughts as to how we can re-envision or reform the Board of Regents system and how we interact with constituents.”

How would your background experience help you as a UMN regent?

Cohen: “I have worked with USDA APHIS and dealt with multiple stakeholders in crafting policies. I have also worked with a diversity of people…I know you need to have broad perspectives and bring some additional exposure in decisions.”

Johnson: “I’ve learned how to deal with a lot of people, including over 5,000 state employees. This process of becoming a regent has given me a whole different perspective of what people are expecting of the board, which is more transparency. Having taught for 10 years, I think I have a better understanding of what the students need.”

Aarsvold: “I have dedicated a lot of years to education, it’s useful to have an educator’s perspective and have the value that students come first.”

Burns: “Whether you’re teaching physics or coaching gymnastics, it’s all about taking somebody from where they’re at and bringing them to a higher level. And I think I have a long history of doing that.”

Siekmeier: “My background in workforce development has crystallized how critical hands-on work experience, marketable skills and a good education are for students to bridge the gap between classroom and career. I’m committed to leveraging my background in workforce development and governance experience to help the University set graduation and placement goals that will help students find career success in livable wage jobs.”

Yang: “I will be the first to say that I do not have 40 years of experience in governance, but that is honestly my greatest strength. As someone who is part of the day-to-day life of being a student, hopefully I can bring those perspectives to the board as they’re making those decisions.”

If you are elected, what values would you like to implement into your own governance style?

Cohen: “I don’t make decisions quickly. Just as a scientist would, I collect the information and talk to both sides. Regents are acting internally and may not be aware of policy.”

Johnson: “Talking to students has become an invaluable part in how I look at governance at the University. Students’ needs are number one. Faculty and staff also deserve to be heard and what we aren’t doing well right now is letting the outside world in.”

Aarsvold: “Everyone deserves to be heard. I was surprised that there are not a lot of opportunities for people to be heard by the board. Students, faculty and frontline workers should have a voice in decisions that will impact them.”

Burns: “I have a few core values that I try to live my day-to-day life by, and they are passion, purpose, positivity and enthusiasm. I want to laugh out loud once a day, and I want to make somebody else do the same. It’s really easy to look at a situation and see all the bad things that are surrounding it. But I decided not to do that. I like to think that every situation has more positives than negatives to it.”

Siekmeier: “Diversity, equity and inclusion are a foundation, a way of thinking, acting and being that I will bring to my role as a regent. Actively listening to students, staff and other stakeholders impacted by decisions facing the board is also important.”

Yang: “The framework we need to keep in mind for all decisions is transparency and accountability. We also need to prioritize students and student perspectives. Everyone’s talking about how the University is for the students, but there’s no student consultation in the process. I really want to engage in dialogue with the current regents and the newly elected ones to be able to facilitate those forms of discussion.”

If you are elected, how do you plan to connect with students, faculty and staff members at the University?

Cohen: “I already have connections working with the APHIS and the Department of Plant Pathology on campus. I want to expand my knowledge on the greater [Minnesota] campuses and have more discussion with them. A good regent is one that goes out and says ‘I want to talk to you.’”

Johnson: “I have already met with students and leaders across the University system campuses, including at Morris and Rochester. The greatest ideas come from the students, faculty and staff who are out there in the University world.”

Aarsvold: “I’ve always tried to listen to shareholders. I have a background in agriculture so my knowledge is in the rural side…I would love rural students to see it [the University] as a viable option. I would connect through going to organizations and events that are being held to talk with students and attend meetings across the state.”

Burns: “I’ve already started that process. [I’ve] met with a couple of faculty members, I’ve had some conversations with UMPD [University of Minnesota Police Department] members and want to go along for the ride on a ride along with my good friend Officer Betts. I’m in the gym every day with students and I’m on campus every day. I probably have one of the most unique perspectives of any candidate, with the exception of Flora Yang.”

Siekmeier: “Through the SciTech Internship Program, I partnered with student groups, faculty and staff to provide program information, organize job search workshops and cosponsor events. I am committed to an open-door policy, responding to inquiries, advocating for public comment time at board meetings and reaching out for input from stakeholders impacted by board decisions.”

Yang: “Student voices are really

important and need to be prioritized. I’m honored that I am trusted to be in this role.The Board of Regents has power only because the constituents of the state of Minnesota, just like how I’m a student body president…the only reason that I have this power is because students elected me to be in this role. We really need to have more consultation and just be more open to listening and be able to empathize with that and them [students] and come up with cohesive, long-term strategic planning into how we can implement those suggestions into the University system.”


Candidate answers have been edited for style, clarity and length.

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