New University of Minnesota regents join governing board ahead of key decisions

Ryan Faircloth, Star Tribune
·4 min read

The University of Minnesota's Board of Regents will welcome four new members in May right as it begins key discussions about tuition rates and the school's $4 billion budget.

The new regents — a Mayo Clinic doctor, an engineer, a family farmer and a current U student — are studying up on university policies and issues as they prepare to help decide how the state's flagship institution responds to and learns from pandemic-related challenges. Their presence will alter the dynamics of the U's 12-member governing board, tilting it closer to gender balance, and their priorities will influence the direction of the university over the course of their six-year terms.

In the coming months, regents will decide how to best address a more than $150 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year and set the budget for the coming year. The latter discussion will include a decision on whether to increase tuition; university leaders froze tuition for the current academic year to provide financial relief to students at its five campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I am going to be extremely hesitant to increase tuition for resident students," said Regent James Farnsworth, a senior at the Twin Cities campus and executive director of the Highland Business Association in St. Paul. "I don't think coming out of the pandemic that it's a good message to send to our students."

Farnsworth noted he will be the only member of the board who knows what it's like to be a student during the pandemic. The sudden switch to online learning was jarring for many students, Farnsworth said, but there are lessons to be learned from delivering college classes in remote and hybrid settings.

He hopes the university will continue offering distance learning options beyond the pandemic to increase accessibility for nontraditional students who are balancing full-time jobs, parenting duties or other commitments.

"I think it should be something that students are able to opt into," he said.

Additionally, Farnsworth wants the board to review the long-term direction of the U's athletics department. He still has questions about athletic director Mark Coyle's decision last fall to eliminate three men's sports programs — tennis, gymnastics and indoor track and field — in an effort to address a budget deficit and Title IX compliance concerns.

Regent Ruth Johnson has her sights set on helping improve the U Medical School's national ranking and grow the university's Rochester campus as it seeks to expand from more than 900 students to 2,500 over the next decade.

With her election last month, Johnson became the seventh Mayo Clinic doctor to sit on the U's governing board since 1907. The first was Dr. William Mayo, one of the medical center's founders.

"There's a legacy there of our collaboration and work together," said Johnson, founding director of the Mayo Diagnostic Breast Clinic and the first woman to serve as associate director of Mayo's Internal Medicine Residency Program.

Johnson, who served on Augsburg University's board of trustees for 17 years, said she hopes to help the U increase the number of female students studying science, technology, engineering and math. She also wants to see the university admit more students of color and first-generation college students.

Regent Kodi Verhalen, too, said she will seek to advance the university's focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. The attorney and engineer from Elk River previously led efforts to make the engineering field more inclusive while serving as president of the National Society of Professional Engineers in 2016-2017. She was the youngest person, and the third woman, to hold the role in the organization's 80-year history.

A 2004 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth, Verhalen said she also understands the burden of student debt and will consider it when discussing possible tuition increases.

"When I was a student, tuition doubled from the time I started to the time I ended in four years," she said. "I understand the weight that can put on students."

Regent Doug Huebsch, a family farmer from Perham, Minn., who served on the U Alumni Association's board of directors from 2014-2020, declined an interview request but said in a statement he is "humbled and honored" to be elected to the board.

Steve Sviggum, vice chairman of the Board of Regents, said he's already talked with the new members over Zoom and was struck by their attitude of "working together as a team for the best interests of the university."

"I think they really have at heart the mission of the university," Sviggum said.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234