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New Regents reflect on first summer

Regents Robyn Gulley, Penny Wheeler and Mary Turner talk about their first summer experience on the Board and their future goals.
Image by Gabrielle Erenstein
Senior Vice President Myron Frans presenting during the University of Minnesota Board of Regents special meeting on Monday June 26, 2023.

The Minnesota legislature named Regents Robyn Gulley, Penny Wheeler and Mary Turner to the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents last May.

The new Regents sat down with the Daily to talk about their first summer on the Board, what they learned and their goals for the future.

Minnesota Daily: It has been a busy summer for the Board, which began with the Regents choosing Jeff Ettinger as the new interim president. What was it like joining the Board during such an important time in the University’s history?

Robyn Gulley: “Of course, we learned that Joan Gabel would be leaving while we were in the middle of the Regent election process, so that was unexpected. I will say that there’s a lot of opportunity in having the chance to elect a new leader when you’re coming on to a board like the Board of Regents. You have a big opportunity to select someone who matches up with values and who shares the sort of hopes that you have for the University, and can hopefully craft a vision that matches what not just me, but the whole Board hopes for the University. But of course, it is a huge responsibility too. My first meeting as a Regent was coming into the selection process for interim-President Ettinger. So it was exciting and it was just a really big moment to walk in and to start digging into the work.”

Penny Wheeler: “Well, it’s quite a process getting there. The Regents selection process is wild and wooly, but I felt as soon as selected, first of all, a tremendous honor. I’m a triple Gopher: undergraduate, medical school, residency, and have taught and cheered and supported things ever since. So it felt mostly like an honor for us to get selected, but then you’re right, you’re diving right in, so I think there were big things that came on the radar after I applied. President Gabel resigned after I applied and MHealth and Sanford announced their intent to merge. So big issues happened and I was happy to actually be part of that and hopefully learn a lot and use what experience and life experiences I had to make a difference for a University that had given me so much.”

Mary Turner: “Well, to be honest, out of all of the Regents, I went to the U for a little while, way back in 1978, and so I probably am the least in the know about what’s been going on the last few decades at the U and so for me, it was very relevant. It’s like when you say the biggest transition time in history, I do know that the sudden announcement that the past president was leaving appeared to take people by surprise. It’s quite the process. So when you say turmoil, et cetera, we’ve gone through a whole legislative session of turmoil.” 

Daily: What has been the most rewarding part of being on the Board this summer?

Gulley: “Definitely just building relationships with people who are invested in the University, absolutely. I mean, it started with the Regents election process and really getting to talk to many, many legislators about what they value about the University and what they’d like to see in the future of the University. And as a Regent, I get to meet faculty and staff and students from across the whole university, all of the campuses, it’s just an incredible opportunity to have ways to see sort of every aspect of the University.”

Wheeler: “I think the most rewarding is that it feels like very purposeful work. It really matters to a lot of individuals, students primarily, but also all those that support them and the staff and faculty, and then it means so much to the whole state of Minnesota and how we function. I’m a lifelong Minnesotan you know, so I think that the best thing is it feels very purposeful. It’s also been good to get to know each other and trust each other, and so being part of that process too has been a positive.” 

Turner: “This is what I enjoy, and so now I have a whole new world of people that I can advocate for any issues that are coming to my attention, and I just thrive on this kind of thing. This is what I’ll be doing when I’m 100, I’ll be out there with my wheelchair picket sign or something. This is what I do. This is what I love.”

Daily: What have you learned from being on the Board this summer that will help you improve as a member of the Board of Regents going forward?

Gulley: “We had extensive onboarding this summer and it’ll continue into the fall. The great thing about the onboarding sessions and the amazing work of the Regents office is that they bring together senior leaders from across the entire system to talk about how they work together and how they work individually to make the University what it is. I’ve had the opportunity to spend meetings with them and we also just had our Regent retreat to spend time one on one with most of the other Regents, and those relationships are invaluable for figuring out what values we share and how we can move forward on things that we think are important together.”

Wheeler: “You’re learning about all the different functions and the complexities of the University, some of which I knew and some of which I didn’t. I’d say some of my best conversations, though, have come with students themselves, and faculty members just getting their perspectives on how we can make things better. I always try to operate from the edge of ‘Never forget who you’re serving and why.’ So I think learning from the different people, the faculty, the staff, but really the students and what their perceptions of needs are, what we do really well, what we should do more of and what we need to do less of.”

Turner: “Well, to be honest, I was a little intimidated. You come into the situation and everybody’s in academia, they all got degrees and lots and lots and lots of degrees. So I was just very intimidated. That question for me is more of an internal one because it resonates because I’ve been in two different situations now where I didn’t know a lot about what they’re gonna need me to do at the federal level, and I didn’t know a whole lot about what they’re gonna need me to do at the University, but just having to realize that I have something to offer.”

Daily: Now that you have a few months of experience, what are your personal goals on the Board going forward?

Gulley: “The next few years we’ll have the opportunity to think about our strategic plan going forward. So part of my goal for the next couple of years is to think about what I would like to bring to that strategic planning process. Another thing is that one of my deeply held values is that it’s important to have buy-in and transparency and to engage folks who are going to be impacted by a decision. So one of the things that I’ve been really pushing for is just more opportunities for people to interact with Regents. I would really love to have a comment period in our Regent meetings. I know that we’re about to launch a portal for people to share their comments, but in the immediate future, I hope to continue to move toward more transparency and more engagement with folks in our community.”

Wheeler: “I try not to have too many personal goals, I want to just serve the students and staff and faculty and the state of Minnesota well by this role. I guess my personal thing is to try to look at all the different stakeholders and constituencies and make sure you’re making the best choices and decisions that serve all and serve the future of the University. I want to look at it as a team sport, not an individual sport because you’re making choices that are affecting many lives, and the choices you make will please some and will disappoint some at the same time. So it’s a very, very difficult volunteer role because you’re never going to make everybody happy. But I think my purpose is to try to get all the information I can from the people who care and are served by the University, make the best decisions we can collectively, and foster the trust and respect, but also candor of the Board.” 

Turner: “Well come December 31, I won’t be president of [Minnesota Nurses Association] MNA anymore. I’ll have finished up eight years, and that’s long enough to do anything. So I’ll have even more time, and that’s where meeting with more and more of the student groups and just spending even more time down at the U and all the other different campuses. More importantly, it’ll roll right into the legislative session, so I’ll be doing a lot of what I have been doing. I want to be a ‘working Regent’ and I’m not just there to go to the monthly board meeting and you’re not going to catch me ‘rubber stamping’ anything, that’s kind of an offensive term to us on the Board because it makes it sound like there’s nothing behind our decisions, but I heard it up at the legislature. I’m wanting to be a working Regent.”

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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