Proposals to alter the process that produces candidates for the University of Minnesota Board of Regents were not unexpected at the Legislature this year — not after last year’s regents’ election left a number of legislators dissatisfied.
Still, the stated rationale is startling for eliminating the Regent Candidate Advisory Council (RCAC) and replacing it with a screening commission composed entirely of legislators — an idea that advanced in both House and Senate higher-education committees Tuesday. One credulity-straining claim is that the citizen-based council is “too political” and that a commission of legislators would behave in a less partisan fashion.
The RCAC also stands accused of paying too little attention to the board’s diversity, particularly regarding gender; of screening candidates in a manner that some consider overly subjective and others deem inadequate; and for insufficient effort to recruit candidates for what is arguably the most important public governing board in the state.
From that indictment, one might surmise that the RCAC is an external annoyance thrust upon an unwilling Legislature. In fact, it’s a body of the Legislature’s making, created in 1988. It operates according to the Legislature’s directives. All of its 24 members are appointed by the Legislature; its size and partisan composition are in the Legislature’s control.
What’s more, the RCAC’s role is purely advisory. Legislators retain the authority to supplant the council’s judgment with their own. That constitutionally guaranteed prerogative has been exercised only occasionally during the RCAC’s life span, but it was seen last year in the election of former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, also a former regent, to the board.
Some of the criticism of last year’s exercise is warranted — and is newly relevant, given the announcement that 15-year regent Patricia Simmons plans to leave the board at a yet-to-be-specified date this spring, potentially giving this Legislature another seat to fill. Only two of the 12 candidates the RCAC referred to the Legislature in January 2017 were women. The council’s screening of another candidate failed to turn up sexual-harassment charges that surfaced later.
But those complaints point to problems that the Legislature can address short of eliminating the RCAC and the citizen input it provides. The Legislature can alter the council’s size and composition. It can direct the council to advance a more diverse slate, or alter the number of candidates the RCAC recommends to the Legislature. It can beef up the council’s ability to perform background checks on candidates.
As one former RCAC chair, Mary McLeod, recently recommended on these pages, legislators also can — and should — take more personal responsibility for recruiting candidates. A governor’s unique capacity to tap talented people for public service should be used as well. The Legislature could give the governor a larger role by allowing the executive branch some RCAC representation.
The Legislature can take other steps to improve the regent selection. For example, six weeks now elapse between the RCAC’s recommendations and the Legislature’s election. Quality candidates may be deterred by the duration of the “campaign” they feel compelled to wage at the Capitol to win support. A tighter time frame should be considered.
What the Legislature ought not do is spurn the counsel of a select panel of citizens who care enough about the University of Minnesota to volunteer their time and effort in shaping its governing board — and who, not incidentally, relieve legislators of what can be a taxing assignment that’s well beyond the scope of usual legislative duties.
The RCAC’s members give deep, sustained attention to the high public trust that service on the Board of Regents entails. Shouldn’t those who bear the constitutional responsibility to elect regents want as much advice from such people as they can get?