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It’s looking more likely that lawmakers will select U of M regents after all

DFL leaders had refused to schedule a joint convention, when all 201 legislators would elect regents, because of disagreement among caucus members about whom to elect.

U of M Board of Regents
Gov. Tim Walz weighed in recently at a news conference, saying the Legislature should select regents.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Minnesota legislative leaders have “probably” settled on a date to hold the final vote to select four new University of Minnesota Board of Regents members before end of session, when inaction by lawmakers would kick the responsibility to the governor.

Though no formal date has been announced, it looks likely the Legislature will select regents in the next couple of weeks, said Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, chair of the Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee.

DFL leaders had refused to schedule a joint convention, when all 201 legislators would elect regents, because of disagreement among caucus members about whom to elect. A shortlist of recommended candidates produced by a joint higher education committee in February didn’t align with a slate put forward by the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, whose members’ goal is to elect four people of color to the 12-member board governing the state university system.

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Gov. Tim Walz weighed in recently at a news conference, saying the Legislature should select regents because the system, as it’s set up, lets more people weigh in, according to the Pioneer Press. “I’m a big believer that when you set up these systems to find the right people, we should try and follow them,” Walz said.

‘Before the fishing opener’

As the Senate convened the evening of April 23 to pass budget bills, Senate Majority Leader Gazelka introduced a resolution to hold the final vote on regents May 1. “The goal is to light a fire under the House so we can actually do this,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk jumped in to say he’d spoken with House Speaker Melissa Hortman and had a tentative commitment to schedule a joint convention before the weekend of May 11.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk
“She does have an interest in holding a convention to select regents,” Bakk said on the Senate floor. “She offered up that she probably would be willing to have a joint convention before the fishing opener. So, I think we’re there. I do think pushing this [resolution] right now is probably a little fast and probably doesn’t advance the ball in getting that done.”

Legislators take off during the Minnesota fishing opener, which falls the weekend of May 11, followed by Mother’s Day on May 12. It’s a short break before the mad dash to finish the session by May 20.

“I would suggest maybe we have a conversation with the speaker about this before we act on it,” Bakk said. “I don’t think it’s in the interest of the Senate to catch the House by surprise with something like this because it is something we have to cooperative work on to accomplish.”

With his goal accomplished before a vote was called, Gazelka set aside the resolution.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said this morning that he doesn’t know the outcome of talks between House and Senate DFL leaders. He said legislators are focused on meeting a deadline this week to pass budget bills. “After May 1, when we pass our budget bills off the House and Senate floor, would be a good time to look at this again.”

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Republicans have lobbed public criticism at Democrats over the delayed regents selection process since Gazelka sent a letter at the end of March demanding a joint convention. Anderson said the ordeal has been “maddening.”

“We need to have this,” he said.

Student candidate hopes for vote before graduation

The day can’t come soon enough for Mike Kenyanya, a regent candidate. He paced the halls of the Capitol’s second floor Wednesday, catching legislators as they passed. He didn’t know if it would be a good day for it, knowing the budget takes priority. The House was in a marathon floor session. But the timing for another trip fell into place ahead of finals at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, where he’s in his final semester.

“They’re busy,” he said. “But they’ll stop and talk for a minute.”

Kenyanya made it through the application and interview process and onto the shortlist of recommended candidates. The joint committee decided in February to endorse Kenyanya for the at-large regent seat reserved for students. He was one of four student candidates forwarded to the Legislature by the Regent Candidate Advisory Council – a group made up of Minnesota citizens and a few legislators tasked with vetting applicants.

He has borrowed his roommates’ cars to make nine trips from Duluth since January. Quick to smile and an easy talker, he said he always liked the campaign. It’s the uncertainty of whether his effort will have been in vain that leaves him feeling frustrated. His pitch to lawmakers has grown shorter because, really, the only thing left to say is they might have a problem if they don’t vote soon.

Mike Kenyanya
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf
UMD senior Mike Kenyanya made it through the application and interview process and onto the shortlist of recommended candidates.
Kenyanya will graduate May 11 and he thinks that renders him ineligible to serve as the student regent. “I’d be pretty disappointed to have responded to the call to apply … and spend half a year campaigning, only to be kicked out of contention,” he told MinnPost.

State statute says the student regent must be enrolled in a degree program at the time of election. The session ends May 20. If the Legislature fails to select regents by then, the governor would pick up the task.

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Kenyanya said he’s had advice from folks who say he should delay his graduation or take a summer course to ensure he remains eligible. But he’s looked forward to his family seeing him walk at graduation for too long.

He brought his concerns to higher education committee and caucus leaders’ attention weeks ago. Now, he’s spreading the word to as many other lawmakers as he can. Some seem surprised. The regent selection process rarely goes this late in the session, so it’s not likely a factor they’ve encountered. “I’ve just been reiterating there’s this constraint that doesn’t apply to others,” he said.

‘Someone who had consensus’

Anderson, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said there hasn’t been any discussion about Kenyanya’s particular situation, but it’s another reason to demand a final vote be scheduled. “We had really strong candidates across the board, but Mike is someone who had consensus. He probably had the most consensus over anybody,” Anderson told MinnPost.

Kenyanya was born in Kenya and came to the United States with his family when he was 5 years old. He graduated from Maple Grove High School but he couldn’t walk at commencement because he failed a class, which is a major reason he won’t delay his graduation this semester.

He joined student government as a freshman at UMD. He was a student representative to the Board of Regents as a sophomore. Now, he’s in his second year as student body president, getting a front-row seat to the selection of a new university president.

“He’s a really successful young man. … I think he would serve the university really well,” Anderson said. “It would be a shame if someone like him couldn’t serve on the board.”

Legislators aren’t obligated to elect candidates selected by the joint committee, so Kenyanya isn’t a shoe-in. The RCAC also forwarded three other student candidates, including a second undergraduate, a master’s student, and a law school student. Kenyanya says he doesn’t assume he’ll be selected but he hopes he isn’t disqualified before a vote.

Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, chair of the House Higher Education Finance and Policy committee, said they had “a blessing of riches” this year, with more qualified candidates than room on the university board.

“Until the joint convention happens, a lot of candidates are still in the mix,” Berndardy told MinnPost. “If issues arise because the process doesn’t happen soon, we will have to address it.”