Even as they continue to face off over the budget, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman and GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka have managed to agree on one thing: They will convene a joint session Thursday to elect four new members to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.
That outcome seemed in doubt in recent weeks. There was dissension among some lawmakers over the list of finalists, which was determined near the end of February. Those divisions were complicated by political considerations. The People of Color and Indigenous Caucus (POCI) had expressed concerns over the diversity of the five finalists — three white women, one Hmong woman and one black man running for the student seat. In a February letter to fellow DFL members, they expressed their desire to have all four open seats be filled by people of color and offered their own slate.
“We believe that adding more diversity to the Board of Regents will be a critical step toward fulfilling these goals and addressing the persistent disparities affecting the University of Minnesota,” the letter stated. “We need a more robust effort recruiting, retaining and graduating more professionals in every program at the U. We can’t afford the current status quo.”
Certainly diversity should be among the considerations for prospective regents. Of the 12 regents now on the board, 10 are men. Terms for the two women expire this year. One of the two, Peggy Lucas, did not make the list of finalists. Neither did the outgoing student regent, Abdul Omari, who this time was a candidate for an at-large seat. Daniel Wolter, head of the Regents Candidate Advisory Council, said diversity was a significant factor this time around. “Diversity in terms of gender and ethnic background was a huge priority for us,” he said. “We were quite proud of the fact that 75% of the candidates this time were women or persons of color.”
No selection process is perfect, and the mix of considerations will change as circumstances dictate. But the Legislature and state should not dismiss the value of having a selection committee that does the hard work of interviewing and evaluating candidates. Begun in 1988, it was designed both to have a group whose sole function was to determine the best possible selection of candidates, and to serve as an important buffer that would depoliticize the process to the extent possible. In both Wisconsin and Iowa, regents are simply appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
The importance of a strong selection process cannot be overstated. The regents wield extraordinary power over one of the largest university systems in the country. Regents determine major policies and long-range plans, approve budgets, monitor and evaluate the university’s performance and that of its president, whom they can replace if they deem it necessary. The U itself has constitutional autonomy, which gives it a unique degree of independence from the Legislature and state government.
With such responsibility, these are jobs that require strong judgment, commitment and a passion for the university’s mission. Minnesota is fortunate to have so many individuals willing to volunteer their time to choose the best candidates. And even more so to have so many qualified candidates willing to run the gauntlet of the selection process. Whoever is selected, we wish them well and encourage them to look beyond their own experience and seek counsel from a broad array of viewpoints.