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How do we pick University of Minnesota leaders?

Steve Sviggum, former House Speaker and newest University of Minnesota regent. (Duluth News Tribune file photo)

By designating the University of Minnesota as the state’s “land grant” institution of higher education, Minnesota’s founders recognized that the U of M would hold a prominent place in guiding the direction of our state for generations. With its constitutional autonomy, the responsibility to elect members to the University’s Board of Regents resides with members of the Minnesota Legislature. There are 12 elected regents, one from each congressional district and four at-large.

In 1988, the Regent Candidate Advisory Council (RCAC) was created to recruit, screen and recommend candidates to the Legislature. Before then, the process consisted of self-nomination and a single screening by legislators representing the congressional district for which there was a contest. It was widely been seen as too political, inadequate in identifying qualified candidates with relevant experience and leading to a lack of diversity. Facing a requirement to campaign directly to legislators, broad cross-sections of Minnesotans felt discouraged from running for regent because they did not have the right political connections.

While the RCAC certainly is not perfect, and while the ultimate decision regarding whom to elect rests with the Legislature, it provides an important tool to gain valuable insight into the candidates’ experiences, priorities and visions for the U of M. In fact, it often recommends more than one candidate for each position.

Given the outcome of this year’s selection process, it is evident that it is time to revisit ways to improve it. There has always been an element of politics to the selection of regents, as there is with any election contest. But this year the process took an unprecedented turn with the election of former GOP House Speaker Steve Sviggum. He was elected without a formal application to the RCAC. It’s one thing for legislators to ignore the recommendations of the RCAC; it’s completely another thing for a well-connected, high-profile former legislative leader to win a seat on the board without going through the process. Every Minnesotan should find this concerning.

During the House/Senate Higher Education Committee meeting, additional candidates were nominated who had not been through the RCAC process. Furthermore, during the Joint House/Senate floor session, many individuals were nominated or voted for without any nomination, such as former governors Tim Pawlenty and Arne Carlson and former Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon. These names were added possibly to point out that the process itself was dysfunctional.

The nomination process wasn’t the only troubling element. Two highly qualified women were recommended by the RCAC and supported by DFL legislators during the joint House/Senate Higher Education Committee meeting. Unfortunately, GOP legislators on the committee recommended an all-male slate to the full Legislature. In 2017 it’s disappointing that the best result the Legislature could provide was to elect all white men to the four open seats. University leadership should reflect the diversity of the students, alumni, staff and faculty.

I am now collecting information from former regent applicants to understand how to improve the process. I am working on legislation addressing the problems of late nominations, voting for individuals who have never been nominated or vetted and increasing the diversity of the pool of those who are nominated and recommended by the RCAC. Please contact me if you have suggestions to improve the selection process.

The University of Minnesota is a complex and large organization with significant amounts of funding from federal and state tax dollars. It is the regents who are ultimately accountable for oversight of operations, personnel and investments. Thus it is prudent that we elevate the process by which regents are selected. For the economic security of our state, it is wise to continue investing in the University of Minnesota and to improve the regent selection process. I look forward to working with lawmakers of both parties to reform this process in order to protect the University’s long-term vitality.

Jennifer Schultz

Rep. Jennifer Schultz DFL-Duluth represents District 7A in the Minnesota House. She can be reached at (651) 296-2228.

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