The process to fill four vacant seats on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents culminated yesterday in a near party-line vote that left DFLers fuming and Republicans vaguely smug.
The two highest-profile candidates for the board — former House Speaker Steve Sviggum and former state Rep. Laura Brod — were among four regents elected by a joint legislative convention on Monday. DFLers say that Sviggum and Brod, who will now fill six-year terms on the University’s governing board, got elected with a lot of help from their friends in the Republican majority.
Regents, who receive no pay, work with the university’s president on the system’s budget, policies and capital improvement efforts. The 12-seat board includes a post representing each of Minnesota’s eight Congressional Districts and four at-large positions.
Brod, Sviggum and the other two candidates — current Regent David Larson, of Wayzata, and David McMillan, of Duluth, who has served on the state Chamber of Commerce’s board — were recommended to the Legislature by a combined meeting of the House and Senate Higher Education Committees last week.
‘Most overt display of partisan politics’
DFLers raised hell after that meeting, calling the process highly political and partisan. Discussion on the House floor yesterday was similarly divisive.
“[That meeting] became the most overt display of partisan politics that has ever invaded the regents selection process in the 150 years of the University of Minnesota,” said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. “If that’s what you want, that’s what you got.”
But sheer numbers, even with the blanket of snow that coated Minnesota, outweighed Democrats’ protests. In the end, Republican candidates for positions in the state’s Second, Third and Eighth Congressional Districts, as well as one at-large post, were chosen.
Democrats asserted that secret meetings without DFL representation occurred in the Second Congressional district to nominate a candidate who ultimately wasn’t chosen. While some Republican lawmakers, like Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, scoffed at the notion of a covert meeting, others at least offered it tacit acknowledgement.
“If people want to get together to talk about things, they’re allowed to,” said Senate Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Michelle Fischbach.
Democrats also contended that even during their previous majorities the Legislature chose candidates based on qualification rather than party affiliation.
Republicans scoffed at the notion.
“Partisan politics have been involved for many years,” GOP Sen. Claire Robling said with a slight smile. “This is probably the first time Republicans haven’t been frustrated.”
Hunter was board’s sole labor representative
The choice of Brod, who replaced sitting Regent Steven Hunter, the board’s only labor representative, also drew Democrat’s ire.
Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL lead on the Senate Higher Education Committee, said seniority and experience are important components for success governing the university. She called Hunter the “workforce of the board.”
Long-time labor supporter Rep. Tom Rukavina pleaded with Republicans on the House floor to “give us one, just one,” speaking of Hunter, an AFL-CIO leader.
“Don’t turn back a tradition that has been around for over 75 years,” he said. “Don’t slap working people in the face.”
‘A good set of recommendations’
Unsurprisingly, Republicans supported their own choices. Fischbach said the committee she co-chaired last week sent a “good set of recommendations” to the Legislature, and Robling said Brod and Sviggum have more diversity to their backgrounds than just legislative service.
Both Brod and Sviggum said they hope to drastically improve the university, which Brod called the state’s “jewel.”
They’ve had months to learn about the university and hone their positions, undergoing interviews with a citizen council and countless meetings with legislators to gain support.
Although the months-long process afforded the new regents some time to prepare, they begin today, 24 hours after they were voted in.
But that means little to Brod.
“When they say you’re off and running, you’re off and running,” she said with a laugh.