State legislators are making a push to appoint more women and people of color to the University of Minnesota’s male-dominated governing board — an effort that led one of its veteran members to drop out of contention.
Four seats on the 12-member Board of Regents are up for grabs — enough openings to significantly affect the tenor of the body ahead of a major transition to a new university president this summer. Dean Johnson one of three incumbents running for re-election, said he spoke with more than 100 legislators in recent weeks and got a clear sense that, particularly on the DFL side, an “experienced white male from rural Minnesota” faces long odds. On Monday night, a joint higher-education committee backed a slate of recommended candidates to the board — all of them women or minorities — with the full Legislature slated to conduct a vote in joint session later this month. These candidates are: Janie Mayeron for the Fifth Congressional District, Mike Kenyanya for student regent, and Mary Davenport, Kao Ly Ilean Her and Sandy Wiese for two at-large seats. Incumbents did not fare well: Two others, Abdul Omari who led the recent U presidential search, and Peggy Lucas, did not get enough votes.
“That’s one thing we heard from legislators and from members of the current Board of Regents — that diversity was a high priority,” said Daniel Wolter, head of the Regent Candidate Advisory Council.
Only two regents now are women, one of whom, Linda Cohen, is not seeking re-election; three are people of color.
“I wanted the agenda to be about tuition, facilities, admission standards, debt after graduation,” Johnson said. “But more often than not on my visits with lawmakers, it turned into, ‘We want more minorities,’ or ‘We want more women.’ ”
The process for selecting regents has long been under scrutiny, drawing criticism for the politicking involved and for legislators’ track record of ignoring the recommendations of both the advisory council and the joint committee. Regents serve six years without compensation.
The focus on diversity this year comes after a campus presidential search that ended in the selection of University of South Carolina Provost Joan Gabel to serve as the U’s first female president.
Earlier in February, the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus sent a letter to DFL lawmakers urging them to back a slate made up of minority candidates. Their letter pointed to efforts to recruit more students of color to the U and narrow a graduation gap between them and their white peers, and said this year’s candidate pool offered “a great opportunity to diversify the board.”
“Our dismal record of recruiting and appointing people of color and indigenous people to the board is alarming,” the lawmakers wrote.
Johnson, a longtime former legislator who has already served two terms on the board, said his bid to stay on faced long odds against those headwinds. Johnson said one legislator told him point blank she would only vote for women.
Johnson said he will not campaign for re-election further, but he raised the possibility that lawmakers might revive his candidacy during the joint-session vote, when he could get backing from Republicans and some rural Democrats. He said he understands and supports the need for more diverse voices on the board, but said the governing body can also use more institutional knowledge and a rural Minnesota perspective.
“It’s a relatively young board with a new president coming on,” he said.
On Monday evening, candidates spoke about ensuring affordability for students, holding the administration accountable and finding new revenue sources, among other themes.
Many touted their diverse backgrounds and resolve to work on gender and racial equity. Mayeron, a federal magistrate judge, for instance, spoke about being one of few women in her law-school class.