Lawmakers, regents raise concerns about 'undue influence' in University of Minnesota regent elections

Ryan Faircloth, Star Tribune
·5 min read

State lawmakers and members of the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents are raising concerns that the Legislature's process of electing new regents has become too prone to outside influence.

A 24-member council charged with recruiting and recommending qualified regent candidates has become too political, says its chairman, with some members working to "push the candidates of their choice" instead of providing a robust list to the Legislature. Additionally, lawmakers and regents have voiced concern that a political action committee may be trying to influence the elections.

The behind-the-scenes maneuverings have sparked fresh scrutiny on the regent selection process, which has often been criticized as favoring the politically connected over the most qualified.

"The stakes are really high," said U Regent Michael Hsu, the board's most outspoken critic of tuition hikes and administrator pay. He warned that interest groups are "trying to build a board that doesn't ask any questions."

The U's 12 regents serve unpaid, staggered six-year terms, and are tasked with approving major policies such as tuition increases and an annual budget of about $4 billion. The upcoming election of four regents could reshape a third of the board — Hsu is the sole incumbent running for re-election. The House and Senate higher education committees will meet Tuesday to make final regent recommendations.

Board hopefuls typically apply through the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, whose members are appointed by the Legislature. The council interviews candidates and sends recommendations to the higher education committees, which forward final suggestions to the full Legislature for a vote.

Over the years, Republican lawmakers have accused the Regent Candidate Advisory Council of pushing its own agenda and have introduced legislation to eliminate it.

Dan Wolter, chairman of the regent advisory council, had defended the body and opposed such proposals in recent years. But now, he said the council should be abolished.

This year, some members banded together to advance their preferred slate of candidates, Wolter said. Certain members made "deliberate efforts" to not recommend incumbent regents, he said, which he believes is a clear sign they voted based on preference and not credentials.

The race involving Hsu was especially "polarizing," Wolter said, because some panelists wanted to pick regents who will be an ally of the U's president while others wanted regents who will hold the administration accountable.

Daniel Dorman, a regent candidate who was not recommended by the council, obtained ballot results showing that several panel members only voted for one candidate in each race, even though state law requires the council to recommend two to four people per seat.

"They want their person and only their person," Dorman said. "They're setting themselves up as kingmakers."

The full council ultimately recommended three candidates for each of the four seats.

The Legislature tends to elect candidates vetted by the advisory council, though on some occasions, lawmakers have ignored the panel's recommendations and nominated their own preferred candidates at the last minute.

Fears of PAC involvementA link between the regent advisory council and a new political action committee has only fueled fears that the election process is vulnerable to influence.

Two members of the Regent Candidate Advisory Council work with Maroon and Gold Rising, a nonprofit lobbying group that operates a political action committee under the same name. The group made up of former regents and lawmakers says its mission is to independently advocate for the U's legislative goals. It has made campaign contributions to lawmakers who sit on the regent advisory council and the House and Senate higher education committees.

Republican state Rep. Brian Daniels, who sits on the advisory council, said one of the panelists who works with Maroon and Gold Rising approached him in January about the regent elections. The member asked him which candidates he preferred and then offered him a campaign contribution.

"It didn't pass the smell test," Daniels said, adding that he now believes he was "getting milked for information."

Former U regents Tom Devine and Peggy Lucas, who lead Maroon and Gold Rising, told the Star Tribune their group has not been involved in the regent election process.

But two state lawmakers, DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas and Republican Sen. David Senjem, said they spoke with members of the group about the regent candidates. Pappas said both Devine and Lucas shared their preferred candidates with her.

Neither Lucas nor Devine denied those conversations, but said they were not speaking for Maroon and Gold Rising. They said that as former regents and individuals, they have the right to share their opinions about candidates with lawmakers.

"Tom Devine as an individual can do whatever I want to do," Devine said. "Maroon and Gold doesn't have anything to do with regent elections."

Democratic state Rep. Gene Pelowski, who chairs a House subcommittee on legislative process reform, said he does not buy that explanation.

"I can't separate them from the Maroon and Gold hat," Pelowski said. "The regent selection process has become as partisan as our national and state politics. And it now has the added unfortunate disadvantage of outside groups … pushing their undue influence on regent selection."

Past U president weighs inOthers advocating in this year's elections include former U President Eric Kaler and retiring Regent Richard Beeson. Both Kaler and Beeson are advocating for one of Hsu's opponents.

In an interview, Kaler said he is supporting a longtime friend who is running against Hsu. He said his advocacy in the race has nothing to do with his fractious history with Hsu; while Kaler was president, he and Hsu clashed over tuition increases and athletic department scandals. Hsu also clamored for new leadership during Kaler's final years.

Hsu, who's running for his second term, believes he is being targeted because of his willingness to publicly criticize decisions. He cautioned that the process has become so politicized it scares away qualified candidates.

"It's unfortunate that regent politics has come to this," Hsu said.

State Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, is sponsoring legislation to eliminate the regent advisory council. Doing so, he said, will at least "get one layer of politics out of it." Lawmakers on the House and Senate higher education committees would instead recruit and screen candidates.

"We need a more transparent process," Hertaus said.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth