Lawmakers selected new University of Minnesota regents Monday, flipping a quarter of the board as it prepares to select an interim president to lead the state's flagship university.
Of the four regents whose terms expired this year, only one — Tadd Johnson — will return. Joining the board are West St. Paul City Council Member Robyn Gulley, Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner and former Allina Health CEO Penny Wheeler.
Lawmakers said they intentionally scheduled the vote at the beginning of the week in hopes of bringing fresh perspectives to the board before it selects a successor for President Joan Gabel, who announced last month she would be leaving to take another job. New regents take over as soon as lawmakers approve them.
"I've heard from too many legislators that they want a new vision in the body of regents, particularly when they're selecting an interim and a permanent president," said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee.
Applications for the interim university president job were due by noon Monday, and regents are expected to meet Thursday to narrow down finalists, leaving new members with little time to prepare for their new roles.
Board Chair Janie Mayeron said in a statement that she appreciated that lawmakers "heard our call for prompt action."
"This an important step in charting the University's direction that only our state lawmakers could take," she said.
The transition comes near the end of a legislative session in which some key lawmakers were openly critical of the U administration and the regents who served on the board that works with them. The board consists of 12 volunteers who help select the president, set tuition rates, and craft pitches for state funding, among other things.
Pelowski said lawmakers were frustrated with how the U handled its budget request, with turnover in its leadership ranks, and with the regents' decision to allow Gabel to take a paid position on the board for Securian, a private company that has business with the U. Gabel has since resigned from that position.
"It's just been one thing after another," Pelowski said.
Those frustrations appeared to impact the regent selection process. The Regent Candidate Advisory Council — a group of lawmakers, students, labor representatives and others who screen regent applications — and the higher education committees in the House and Senate both declined to recommend previous board Chair Ken Powell for another term.
Powell stepped down from his leadership role last month, saying he didn't expect to be selected again and wanted "to support continuity of leadership." Regents Darrin Rosha and Steve Sviggum, whose terms also expired, did not apply to serve again.
Mayeron said no one could have anticipated the leadership transitions that have unfolded in recent weeks.
"And as is common during any legislative session, views on our approach to the legislative process are many," she said. "We are listening to that feedback and will apply lessons learned as we work with a soon-to-be-appointed interim president and search for a president."
During public interviews, regent candidates faced questions about how they would address enrollment declines and tuition rates, how they would have handled Gabel's request to serve on Securian's board, and what role they believe diversity plays in the university. The 12-member board will now include eight women and at least four people of color.
Many candidates also spent the past week and months fielding questions from individual lawmakers about why they were interested in the job and whether they were prepared for the scrutiny.
"I had so many legislators say, 'Are you sure you want to do this? You know this isn't paid? This is volunteer,' " Turner recalled. "And my answer to that is, you know, some people go golf, others go to the lake … this is what I do."
Turner, Gulley and Wheeler sat in the gallery of House chambers Monday night, anxiously waiting as lawmakers cast their votes. Some lawmakers favored William Humphries, a partner for Credo LLC, over Turner, and some favored former U undergraduate student body president Flora Yang over Wheeler. Lawmakers did not debate on the floor Monday night, but instead only stated the names of their preferred candidates.
Waiting in the gallery to congratulate the victors, in addition to their friends and family members, were Regents James Farnsworth and Mike Kenyanya, who was recently selected as the board's co-vice chair.
The regents will meet again Thursday morning to discuss candidates for the interim president's job. Gulley said she was working to clear her schedule to prepare for the daunting task of selecting a new U leader.
But, she said, "It's really exciting to have the opportunity to participate in this enormous decision for the university."