Where were the women or people of color?

That's the question state Rep. Jennifer Schultz and others have been asking since her fellow legislators elected four white men to fill all the openings on the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents last month.

The Feb. 22 vote by a joint session of the Legislature has come under fire from those who say diversity should have been more of a priority in the selection process.

Now, Schultz, a DFL legislator and an economics professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is leading the charge to reform the way regents are chosen.

She is drafting legislation that she hopes will encourage more women and minorities to apply for the volunteer positions and help improve their chances of being elected.

"I strongly feel that the Board of Regents needs to reflect the gender balance and ethnicity of the students and faculty at the University of Minnesota," she said.

As a result of last month's vote, the 12-member board dropped from four women to three. The racial breakdown was unchanged: Nine members are white, one is black and two are of Asian heritage.

Some legislators downplayed the diversity issue, saying they're not likely to make any changes this session. "I think that's a good goal to have, but how you get there, you can't magically say you have to have quotas," said Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, chairman of the House higher education committee.

Still, the sight of an all-male, all-white bloc of newly elected regents, at a time when the university touts diversity as a top priority, was jarring to some. Both on and off campus, critics wondered aloud why no women or racial minorities were among the finalists.

"This broken political process resulted in the election of four white men to the board, instead of some of the highly qualified women and people of color," Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, wrote in an update to voters.

Student leaders, too, were disappointed. "If you look at their recommendations, they clearly did not consider diversity," said Trish Palermo, 21, the newly elected U student government president. "That's what we find problematic."

One of the biggest concerns, Palermo said, is that women make up more than half the student body, but only a quarter of the governing board. "At the end of the day, it's a dangerous thing when the Board of Regents is not representative," she said.

Peggy Lucas, one of the remaining female regents, agreed. "We never had enough women on the board in my view, and we lost a good one," she said. "So we're down to three, which isn't really OK."

The fourth female regent, Laura Brod, retired last month. Of the four men elected in February, two are incumbents, David McMillan and Darrin Rosha, and two are new, former House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Ken Powell, chairman and CEO of General Mills.

How the process works

Of the 10 largest university systems by enrollment, the University of Minnesota is the only one that elects regents through the Legislature. Regents at most other large public universities are typically gubernatorial appointments that require confirmation by state senators. In four states, regents are directly elected by voters.

The regents election process starts with an advisory council that recruits and interviews candidates and passes along recommendations to a joint regent nominations committee that includes members of the higher education budget and policy divisions of the Minnesota House and Senate.

The joint nominations committee is free to consider candidates not recommended by the advisory council. For each vacancy, the joint committee puts forth only one recommended candidate. During the final vote, legislators are free to nominate anyone, as occurred with Powell.

Even those involved in the selection process acknowledge there's room for improvement when it comes to recruiting women and people of color.

"It's a valid concern, I will say that," said Mayor Ardell Brede of Rochester, who chairs the advisory council. The problem, he said, is that the original pipeline of applicants wasn't very diverse to begin with.

Last fall, 36 Minnesotans, including nine women, applied for the four openings. After weeks of screening and interviews, the council endorsed two women and 10 men. Brede was shocked, he said, that neither of the women made it through the Legislature.

But Michael Hsu, who has been a regent for two years, noted that the men selected have extensive experience that will benefit the university. "Diversity is important," he said, but "just having diverse people on the board doesn't mean you're going to get better decisions."

Schultz, though, says she believes good candidates have been discouraged from applying because of the Byzantine selection process. One way to improve that, she said, would be to offer candidates mentors to help them through the process. Another possibility, she said, is to create a special subcommittee to ensure that women and minorities are included in the candidate pool.

Schultz's proposed legislation, still in the works, is unlikely to move ahead this year, say Republican leaders.

Nornes, who heads the House higher education committee, noted that this isn't the first time someone has wanted to change how regents are chosen. "We've been trying for years to find even a better system," he said. "And so far that hasn't been successful."

maura.lerner@startribune.com 612-673-7384

ricardo.lopez@startribune.com 651-925-5044