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Should a faculty member or University of Minnesota employee serve on the Board of Regents?

  • Blog Post by: Bill Gleason
  • April 15, 2011 - 8:05 AM

 

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Mr. Steve Sviggum, one of the newest members of our board of regents, recenty resigned his teaching position at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, so that he could continue to serve on the university’s board.

Mr. Sviggum has a history as a partisan member of the GOP and is serving as a lightning rod for the now politically polarized state of Minnesota. He is a former Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representative. He has also been doing some teaching at the Humphrey Institute for the past few years and I have heard nothing but enthusiasm for the work he does there. Sviggum has a B.A. from St. Olaf (in math) and has been both a teacher and a farmer.

He certainly seems qualified to be a member of the board.

Mr. Sviggum was appointed to his position by the legislature, which is now controlled by the GOP. Some have said that the process is too politicized, which may indeed be the case.  When the DFL (Democratic Farmer Labor Party, sigh…) was in control of the legislature last year they appointed their own partisan, Dean Johnson, a former minority and majority leader of the Minnesota House. Currently we have three (25 percent) former members of the state legislature serving as board members.

There is also a student member of the board.

Now a three-member panel of the Board has decided that for Sviggum to serve as both a member and as a faculty member is a conflict-of-interest that apparently cannot be solved by simple recusal when appropriate.

Personally I would like to see a dedicated seat for a faculty member or other employee of the university on the board. I think this would give faculty direct input into deliberations. Currently at board meetings, the administration’s spin is overwhelming. Once a year the public is allowed an hour of three-minute presentations to the board. These are politely ignored for the formality they are.

According to The Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities:

“In 2010, 50.3 percent of public college boards included at least one student as a voting member of the board, and 28.2 percent included at least one nonvoting student member.”

“Of public colleges, universities, and systems, 13.3 percent included at least one faculty member as a voting board member, and 9.7 percent included a nonvoting faculty member.”

Further this same group also answers the question:

Why wouldn’t a school have more faculty and students on its board?

with

“Service on governing boards creates conflicts of interest for faculty and students, and that is why many boards do not include either as voting members.

Which raises the question at Minnesota and other institutions having governance boards with voting student members, how are faculty conflicts different?

The reasons given by the ad hoc committee responsible for adjudicating the matter seem rather flimsy.

A faculty member would have a conflict in matters of resource allocation.

Surely faculty members right now can be found who take actions for the good of the university as a whole rather than parochial interests?

The board deals with employee compensation and benefits?

The board sets the president’s salary and he is de facto a member of the board and attends every meeting, often with a large amount of uncontested input.

Sviggum’s status as a faculty member provides him with rights and responsibilities not afforded to other members of the board because of academic freedom?

How, exactly, is this a problem?

Sviggum’s contractual responsibilities “create an actual or potential conflict of interest under the Code of Ethics, Sec. V, Subds. 2,5.”

And how to deal with this is also spelled out. It is called recusal.

A rather tortured argument is then presented that somehow Sviggum might create confusion in the minds of the public because only the president or the board chair can speak for the board. Faculty members are already quite aware of this distinction. I do not represent an official University of Minnesota in my writings or lobbying efforts. It would be very easy for Regent Sviggum to state: “On this matter I speak as a faculty member and not for the Board.”

Finally, I note that Regent Sviggum is giving up a post that pays $80K/year so that he can remain on the board. Regents are not compensated for their service.

He sounds like just the kind of man who could deal fairly with any conflict issues that might arise.

 

This is an edited version of an opinion piece that has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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