What's abortion got to do with governing the most important public institution in this state? Way too much, I muttered after watching the Legislature's latest exercise of its constitutional responsibility to elect members of the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents.

It's worse than that, state Sen. Richard Cohen countered.

"Electing regents has become like everything else we do around here. It's political tribalism," said the senator who is the Legislature's longest and arguably strongest advocate for the University of Minnesota. "There's too little sense here of the importance of the university in a state like ours."

To recap: Randy Simonson, an animal-science entrepreneur from Worthington, was elected on May 10 to the First Congressional District seat on the board being vacated by retiring regent Patricia Simmons, a Mayo Clinic physician.

Simonson was the choice of a joint convention of the House and Senate, even though he was not one of the two candidates who had been recommended by a legislative screening committee three days earlier. That committee had preferred Brooks Edwards, a Mayo Clinic transplant cardiologist and former Mayo staff president, and Mary Davenport, the retiring interim president of Rochester Community and Technical College and a longtime higher-education administrator.

The vote turned on Simonson's "values of being conservative and pro-life," House higher-ed chair Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, told this newspaper in explaining the Legislature's move. Nornes added: "But the main reason is that his résumé is really strong."

Yes, Simonson is qualified for service on to the Board of Regents. He has a Ph.D. in veterinary microbiology from the University of Minnesota and considerable service on civic boards to his credit. The other four candidates who were screened by the joint legislative committee and at a University of Minnesota Alumni Association forum on April 25 also possess professional qualifications befitting a member of the state's most consequential governing board.

But when electing regents, legislators ought to do more than check for a solid background and a synchronous position on one politically sensitive issue. They ought to think strategically about the institution's needs, as would a self-­sustaining governing board at a major corporation or a prestigious private university. They ought to ask: What are the institution's biggest strategic challenges and opportunities, and who is best positioned to help it meet them?

If those questions had been uppermost on legislators' minds, Cohen thinks his preferred candidate — Edwards — would have won the seat. Instead, after much vote-changing during a verbal roll call, several dozen Republicans who originally supported Edwards switched to Simonson, and all but one DFLer — Cohen — who originally supported Edwards switched to Davenport. The final vote was 104-86-1.

That result left the 13-term DFLer from St. Paul shaking his head.

"A significant part of the University of Minnesota has been the medical school, and that's also a place where there have been real problems over a number of years," Cohen said. "The medical school was at one point considered a top-15 school and now is pushing 50th in the country."

Make that 46th on the U.S. News & World Report's research scale, 12th on its primary care scale. Minnesotans can take pride in that latter ranking but ought to be concerned about the former.

Strategic thinkers about this region's position in the global economy point to a real opportunity to prosper as the "health and wellness state." But that brand's credibility is predicated on a robust, talent-attracting medical research enterprise at the University of Minnesota.

Real visionaries also see value in more collaboration between the university and Mayo Clinic (whose medical school ranks sixth in research). As Edwards told legislators on May 7 about Mayo and the U's medical school, "There's strength in numbers. We're not competitors. We're colleagues."

Cohen's conclusion: "Having somebody who is familiar with not only the practice of medicine but also the administration of medicine would be a real asset on the Board of Regents now."

This state also needs the help of its land-grant university in making the most of its assets. The university is where agriculture can creatively combine with medicine and environmental protection to solve vexing problems. It's where the growing rural-urban divide can be bridged by taking full advantage of the U's greater-Minnesota campuses and research facilities. It's where young talent can be lured from other states and nations, particularly during the demographic trough in the working-age population that's forecast for the coming decade.

Edwards spoke about all those things during his two public appearances at the State Capitol this season. Simonson, by contrast, emphasized his desire to freeze or reduce undergraduate resident tuition and cut costs. He also told the joint committee that the U "doesn't have to be looking at controversial issues such as abortion and research on fetal tissue." An e-mail from him to that effect circulated among some legislators before their May 10 vote. It had its intended effect.

I'd bet that most legislators think applying an abortion litmus test to the candidates in a regent's election is entirely legitimate. It's what political parties have been doing, and have been inviting voters to do, in other elections for the past 45 years. The notion that the university's governance needs and the stakes for this state's future associated with them belong on a higher plain than a typical political appointment appears to be lost on a lot of legislators.

That's a shame, especially since the state Constitution does not allow much latitude for proposing improvement in the regents' election process. One good change made 30 years ago — using a citizen-led Regent Candidate Advisory Council to screen and recommend candidates to the Legislature — has been second-guessed this session. At this writing, its future is uncertain.

Asking legislators to suspend their usual tribal loyalties as they elect regents doesn't seem like much of a strategy for producing more consistently satisfactory results. But short of amending the Constitution, which would require convincing legislators to lessen one of their own prerogatives, cajoling them to exhibit a higher loyalty may have to do.

Cohen makes this case: "In a midsized state like Minnesota, the land-grant research university is the most significant institution in the state, public or private. We thrive with a strong university, and with a weak university, we diminish this state significantly. We need to see to it that the university is governed exceedingly well."

Ten months from now, when the Legislature will fill four seats on the 12-member Board of Regents, I hope Cohen repeats those words to his colleagues every chance he gets.

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.