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In wake of Sviggum controversy, a Board of Regents explainer

Those founding fathers envisioned a board where every member’s highest duty is to the University of Minnesota.

Steve Sviggum at least week's Board of Regents' meeting.

Dear Learning Curve;

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but l’affaire Sviggum has left me feeling a touch undereducated. I’ve read the headlines, I know Steve Sviggum was recently hired as communications director for the state Senate Republican caucus a job that was open because of l’affaire presume Koch/Brodkorb — and I know this rankled his colleagues on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, who last week finally persuaded him to see the writing on the wall.

And I know that when he tendered his resignation Thursday, Sviggum agreed that it was possible to perceive a conflict of interest between his dual roles as regent and as strategist for a political party with a tendency to paint a target on the U of M’s budget.

I’m less clear on this whole regency business, though. Just who are the regents and why do we have them? Who picks them? Is it true their ranks have suddenly been invaded by partisans?

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Also, were those tears real, or crocodile?


Gentle Reader:

We can’t speak for Sviggum, but we think the welling up as he left his last board meeting could well have been genuine. We’d forgive you for any skepticism, though, particularly given how good the former speaker of the state House of Representatives has been at snaring well-paid posts.

He did go straight from that elected office to a comfy post as labor commissioner under Tim Pawlenty, and from there to a fellowship at the U of M’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. But remember, he quit that gig last spring after his fellow regents first declared he had a conflict of interest.

The job he picked to keep then is the one that pays in prestige, not money. This time, he gave up a volunteer job for one that pays $102,000.

Beyond that, though, in the business of hunting you up some answers we came to understand that for lots of people with as much Minnesota topsoil in their blood as farmer Sviggum has in his, being a regent is enough of an honor to ensure some misty moments.

David Lebedoffgpmlaw.comDavid Lebedoff

“I think that service on the Board of Regents is the highest civic responsibility that a citizen of Minnesota can assume,” explained David Lebedoff, an attorney who served on the board from 1977 to 1989, the last two years as chair. “It is always accompanied by discomfort and controversy, but those are small prices to pay for service to our highest institution.”

Its importance was in fact contemplated by our own state founding fathers, who decreed the creation of a University of Minnesota that “shall be located at or near the Falls of Saint Anthony, [and] shall consist of five Departments: The Department of Science, Literature and the Arts; The Department of Law; The Department of Medicine; The Department of the theory and practice of Elementary Instruction; The Department of Agriculture.”

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They spilled a good bit of ink on the topics of university and regents in the Territorial Laws 1851, Chapter 3: An act to incorporate the University of Minnesota, at the Falls of St. Anthony:

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY OF THE TERRITORY OF MINNESOTA, That there shall be established in this Territory an Institution, under the name and style of the University of Minnesota:

Sec. 2. The proceeds of all land that may hereafter be granted by the United States to the Territory for the support of a University, shall be and remain a perpetual fund, to be called the “University Fund,” the interest of which shall be appropriated to the support of a University, and no sectarian instruction shall be allowed in such a University.

Sec. 3. The object of the University shall be to provide the inhabitants of this Territory with the means of acquiring a thorough knowledge of the various branches of Literature, Science and the Arts.

Sec. 4. The government of this University shall be vested in a Board of 12 Regents, who shall be elected by the Legislature as hereinafter provided.

Sounds so nonpartisan, doesn’t it? And technically, it was. Until the 1970s, lawmakers ran and caucused not on party tickets but as liberals and conservatives, and they tended to appoint barons, moguls and scions of industry as regents and let them serve a long, long time.

For decades, its rolls were dominated by Andersons, Johnsons and, for diversity, the occasional Nelson. One John Sargent Pillsbury served from 1863–1901. Pierce Butler served from 1907–1924.

Over the years some unwritten understandings developed. There was typically a Mayo or one of their esteemed physicians. Labor got a seat, as did the student body. Politicians were tapped – Elmer L. Andersen and Wendell Anderson both did lengthy stints after their governorships — but typically after they left their careers as partisans.

Still, it was awfully male and awfully white. In 1988, the Legislature decided to start appointing regents for staggered six-year terms, one from each of Minnesota’s eight congressional districts and four at large, including a U of M student. A Regent Candidate Advisory Council was created to screen candidates.

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Um, I realize I asked for a history lesson, but you’re running on. Could you get back to l’affaire at hand?

Right. In February 2011, lawmakers elected Sviggum to a six-year term representing the Second Congressional District along with fellow Republican Laura Brod, who previously served four terms in the House representing New Prague. She ended up in an at-large post customarily reserved for labor, and thus ousted incumbent Steven Hunter, secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

DFLers groused that the process was tainted by partisan politics, which is probably fair but also failed to note that the third former lawmaker on the board, Dean Johnson, was elected in 2007, when they held a majority.

The other 75 percent of the board’s members, for the record, are retired business executives, professionals and educators. If Sviggum and Brod were part of a plot to ring the henhouse with foxes, it’s arguably in its initial phases.

More problematic, if you ask former regent Lebedoff, which we did, is that lawmakers are trained in a wholly different style of governance, and their presence can make it tougher for the board to exercise its stewardship role.

Those founding fathers envisioned the regents operating in the style of corporate and nonprofit boards, where every member’s highest duty is to the institution. And this model works pretty well when regents are drawn from corporations and nonprofits where that culture is understood.

Lawmakers, by contrast, are, well, partisan. Their business model is an adversarial one. Where a corporate board would follow a 5-4 vote with unanimous support for the controversial policy enacted, adversaries are more likely to retrench.

Another big difference: The regents’ biggest responsibility is hiring a president and backing his or her decisions. If they don’t like the outcome, instead of micromanaging they should go hunting for a new chief executive.

“In my view, the important thing is that regents understand that they serve the university and only the university,” he said, carefully adding that he is not commenting on the Sviggum controversy per se. “It’s important to keep partisanship and political philosophies out of it entirely and there has been considerable success at that.”

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Lebedoff does have one opinion about Sviggum: “When he talked about his love for the university I think he was quite genuine,” he said. “I think he saw that his ability to work with his colleagues was compromised.”

Geez, now I kind of feel sorry for him.

You didn’t ask us, Befuddled, but that might be misplaced. Remember, with the GOP firmly in control of both legislative chambers, Sviggum is still in a position to play kingmaker. Just think: Isn’t the power to name one’s successor the ultimate revenge fantasy?