Minnesota lawmakers chose Worthington entrepreneur Randy Simonson to fill a vacancy on the University of Minnesota's governing board Thursday — a pick Republican leadership said was informed in part by what they saw as his conservative, anti-abortion bona fides.
A joint session of the Legislature backed Simonson, a graduate of the U's veterinary microbiology doctoral program, over two Board of Regents candidates a committee recommended for a First Congressional District opening. Republicans rallied around Simonson, who received 104 of 191 votes cast, defeating Rochester Community and Technical College interim President Mary Davenport and Mayo Clinic cardiologist Brooks Edwards.
"Randy Simonson matched up with the values of being conservative and pro-life; those are important to members," said Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, who co-chaired the committee that recommended Davenport and Edwards. "But the main reason is that his résumé is really strong."
Nornes said news that the U had posted an opening for a medical school fellowship in partnership with the Reproductive Health Access Project — a nonprofit that promotes access to abortion and contraception — "strikes a nerve" with Republican lawmakers, though the university took down the posting.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, of Winona, the DFL lead on higher education and a Davenport backer, called the vote evidence of an increasingly partisan process for selecting U regents. He said it was unfortunate that a candidate's stance on abortion, an issue that rarely comes in front of the board, should factor into a regent's selection.
On his third try to join the board, Simonson will replace retired Rochester physician Patricia Simmons, the U's longest-serving regent, who announced her resignation in March. The co-founder and CEO of Cambridge Technologies, a livestock vaccine company, Simonson reached out to lawmakers before the vote, touting his long-standing U ties and his business acumen.
He has served on campus committees and as an adjunct faculty member, sponsored fellowships and employed university graduates at three companies he helped launch in the state.
Simonson said he is deeply concerned about cost and student debt, arguing for a "Minnesota First" approach prioritizing affordability for local students.
"I am very much in favor of freezing tuition and actually lowering it," he said. "There are ways to do it."
Simonson declined to give his views on social issues. He said he simply believes that as a publicly funded institution, the U should steer clear of intensely controversial issues.
Nornes said Republicans are counting on Simonson to bring fiscal discipline and "an entrepreneurial look to what the university does." But he also said lawmakers wanted a new regent who will "ask a lot of questions" if the U revisits the idea of the one-year medical school fellowship.
Dr. Jakub Tolar, the medical school dean, said in a statement that the school pulled the position, which would have involved instruction in performing abortions. The U "will examine the value of this training in the context of our mission along with the values of the community," Tolar said.
Nornes said the issue came up after the joint higher education committee he co-chairs interviewed candidates Monday, and he did not hold it against colleagues that they flouted the committee's recommendations, as the Legislature has done before.
Democrats largely backed Davenport. Pelowski, who is from the First Congressional District, praised her three decades of work in higher education. He said Davenport, who is slated to retire from her Rochester post this summer, stepped in amid upheaval at that university.
"She did a marvelous job cleaning up a colossal mess there," he said. "That's the type of experience the U desperately needs."
Pelowski said he is troubled that after Simmons' departure only two women remain on the 12-member board. Simonson will serve in the unpaid position through 2021.
Nornes and Pelowski agreed that the regents selection process is flawed.
"We've been troubled about that process for a couple of decades," Pelowski said. "There has to be a shakedown."