At the beginning of Monday’s joint meeting of the Minnesota House and Senate higher education committees, Sen. Jim Abeler wondered if all the members really had to stay at the meeting until they arrived at a single nominee to be the next regent at the University of Minnesota.
“What if we can’t come to a decision? Does the world end?” said Abeler, R-Anoka. “Do we have to stay here till we do? Is this like the pope, we have to put out … white smoke?”
No, he was assured, the rules could be suspended. But first, they were going to at least try to pick one person from among the five applicants to join the U’s Board of Regents, which governs the five-campus University of Minnesota system.
A nominee would need to get five of the nine senators and nine of the 16 House members on the committee in order to win approval. And since the lowest vote getter is dropped after each ballot, joint committee Co-Chair Sen. Michelle Fischbach said she thought they would get there.
They didn’t. After four rounds of drama, no single candidate was able to get the support required, so two names will be discussed by the full Legislature Thursday, during what is called a Joint Convention of the House and Senate. That said, the law that governs regent appointments does not actually require the House and Senate to choose from the nominees.
One of those nominees is Mary Davenport, who is currently the interim president of the Rochester Community and Technical College but who has also been an administrator for other state community and state colleges. The other is Brooks Edwards, a cardiologist and professor at the Mayo Medical School who directed the William J. von Liebig Transplant Center at the Mayo Clinic from 2009 to 2017.
Legislators usually make appointments to the Board of Regents during session in even-number years, taking up four of the 12 regent posts every other year. The unusual timing for this appointment was due to the resignation of long-serving regent Patricia Simmons, who stepped down last month in the midst of her term.
The 13-member Board of Regents consists of four at-large positions and eight representing each of the state’s congressional districts. Simmons represented District 1 along the southern border of the state.
Edwards had support from those on the committee who want to maintain a presence from Mayo on the board. Simmons is an executive at the clinic.
“From my perspective, health care at the University of Minnesota is critical. It can drive a lot of the other programs,” said Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Watertown. “Some universities around the country are driven forward by their athletics. Clearly the University of Minnesota is not, in terms of where we get our dollars from.
“The reason I supported Dr. Edwards is I want the conflicts on the regents,” Jensen said. “I think we need some conflict there. I hope that Mayo Clinic sharing some of its perspective, the University of Minnesota might get its ducks in order.”
But Abeler, who said he thought all the nominees were good candidates, supported Davenport out of concern for the gender imbalance on the board. With Simmons, the board had nine men and three women. Should she be replaced with a man, the board would have 10 men and two women.
“In the rules we are required to address various things, including gender balance, and 9-2 is a significant imbalance,” Abeler said.
He had been voting for Davenport but said he also thought Wendy Shannon, an administrator at Winona State, would bring an understanding of Minnesota State system and the desire to help all students.
The first candidate to be eliminated was Jeanne Hankerson, an attorney who spent much of her career working for Federated Mutual Insurance, most recently as director of compliance. She told the committee members she thought it was important to have someone not part of the higher education establishment.
Shannon, who also had been a public school superintendent in Byron, was next to eliminated. She was followed by Randy Simonson, a veterinarian and business person who had strong support among Republicans, especially those from the House. In his comments to the committee, he said his business background would help him drive attempts to reduce university expenses and increase revenue.
In response to a question about the campuses across the state, Simonson said he thinks the university should make more use of distance learning and then offered something he admitted was controversial: “I’ve always wondered if we need to look closer at having these five campuses,” he said. “Do we need that in this electronic age. If we want to look at costs … do we need all five campuses.”
In addition to the Twin Cities, the U of M system has campuses in Crookston, Duluth, Morris and Rochester.
Most of the questions from House and Senate members on the committee were expected: What would they do about rising costs and tuition? How would they raise the national ratings of the medical school? What would they look for in a president should they have to find a new one? Whether resources are distributed fairly among the Twin Cities campuses and the four other across the state?
The nominees probably didn’t expect one of the questions, though: Abeler cited a controversy over a new position at the medical school for a “reproductive rights advocacy fellowship.”
“The fellow will spend one year as a ‘trainer in training’ learning to perform abortion and related procedures … and learning to teach these procedures to others,” the fellowship posting stated, according to websites Live Action and Campus Reform.
The position was posted on March 14 and withdrawn on May 4. After the withdrawal, Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the medical school and interim vice president for health sciences, issued this statement: “We have pulled the position from the web site and are no longer hiring for this role. We will examine the value of this training in the context of our mission along with the values of the community.”
Abeler asked each candidate to comment on the issue and how it was resolved.
Shannon said that in regard to research and training “there should be some non-negotiables” and university leaders need to be able to establish ground rules. Simonson said he thinks the university should stay away from controversial issues.
“A university does not need to be all things to all people,” he said. Hankerson said she considered it a breakdown in university management. “While we need to have academic freedom at the U, there are guidelines and parameters with which the U operates.”
Among the two finalists, Davenport saw it as an issue of decision making. “Big questions have a number of underlying questions which need to be addressed in and of themselves,” she said. “We have a number of parameters that lead us to policy and procedures which are really creating checks and balances on the different issues that the university could face at any time.”
Edwards, who said he thinks the system worked because concerns were raised and the fellowship was withdrawn, called the issue a difficult one, but also said: “The university should be a crucible to address difficult issues in a respectful and open dialogue. I believe we have to foster dialogue because otherwise we end up with a polarized society and we don’t come together.
“I view these both as challenges and opportunities and the university can use their gravitas and their unique status to bring together dialogue and have transparency.”