State legislators are debating proposals to change how members of the University of Minnesota’s governing body are picked, a system critics say has sometimes favored the politically connected over the most qualified.

The process has drawn fresh attention after the surprise resignation of Regent Patricia Simmons on Wednesday. The Republican-controlled Legislature or DFL Gov. Mark Dayton must now appoint a replacement.

“There’s always things we think we can improve,” said Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee.

The U’s 12 regents approve major policies, educational programs and annual budgets. The unpaid board comprises one member from each of the state’s eight congressional districts. Four are selected at-large.

Board hopefuls typically apply through the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, a 24-member body appointed by the Legislature. The panel sends its suggestions to a legislative commission, which makes recommendations to the full Legislature.

The new proposals would give the Legislature more authority over the selections.

A Fischbach plan would limit the panel’s influence to at-large board positions, giving legislators authority to recommend candidates from their congressional districts.

Another measure would disband the advisory panel, giving legislative higher education committee members authority to select regents.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, is sponsoring a measure to repeal the advisory council, saying lawmakers often ignore the panel’s recommendation.

“[The council is] not really selecting regent candidates that are in the best public interest of the University of Minnesota,” Pelowski said. “It’s a hybrid type of politics to get a particular political animal appointed regent.”

Regent Darrin Rosha has been through the vetting process three times — he was elected to the board in 1989, 2015 and 2017, but the advisory panel chose not to interview him in 2015. He was elected later by the Legislature.

“Obviously, you’re not talking about qualification at that point, you’re actually talking about preference, which is not RCAC’s role,” he said.

Regent Steve Sviggum, a former GOP speaker of the House, said the process should be tweaked. The advisory council vetted Sviggum when he was elected in 2011, but he bypassed the process in 2017. That year, legislators installed him on the board.

“There’s some reasonable rationale behind that concept of congressional districts doing the vetting for the eight persons and the RCAC doing it for the four at-large,” Sviggum said.

 

Ryan Faircloth is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.