Twelve candidates with backgrounds in law, higher education, agriculture and medicine have emerged as finalists for four open spots on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents.
Over three days of interviews last week, 16 candidates made their cases before the Regent Candidate Advisory Council for why they’re a good fit for the school’s governing board.
Regents serve unpaid, staggered, six-year terms on the board and are responsible for approving budgets, new building plans and policy changes.
A hectic round of voting by the council Wednesday afternoon yielded 11 men and one woman for consideration by the Legislature.
The state higher education committees will meet in February to discuss the candidates and will choose a slate of four for final approval by the entire Legislature.
The University must replace regents representing Congressional Districts 2, 3 and 8, which include counties south of the metro area, the northern suburbs of Hennepin County and northeastern Minnesota. One at-large spot must also be filled.
Two regents are retiring and chose not to seek re-election. Incumbents Steven Hunter and David Larson both reapplied and were forwarded to the Legislature by the advisory council along with two state legislators, the president of the University of Maine and executives of several prominent Minnesota businesses.
2nd Congressional District
It could have been stiff legs or his eight years as Speaker of the House that made Steve Sviggum stand while delivering his introduction to the RCAC. With 29 years in the Minnesota Legislature, Sviggum claimed the key to success is balance.
Sviggum graduated from St. Olaf College, but he said he still likes the University of Minnesota. “I don’t say love because I think our University is in need of some reforms,” he said.
Sviggum serves as an adjunct professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and is also involved in agriculture, growing beet, corn and soybean crops with his brothers. He stressed the importance of reform and diversity.
But even with his legislative experience and ties to the University, some council members were disappointed with his interview.
“I thought he did not give a presentation that would show his [legislative] experience,” council member Richard Ista said. “Unfortunately I didn’t think his interview was up to par.”
With six brothers, this small-town Minnesotan is no stranger to being outnumbered by men —precisely her situation as the only female finalist.
A University alumna and, at 39, the youngest regent candidate, Laura Brod showed passion for the University.
“The strength of the mission and the power of the impact of a good education remain as strong as ever,” she said.
Brod grew up on a farm in New Prague and graduated from the University with a geography degree before getting her master’s degree in urban and regional studies from Minnesota State University in Mankato.
Brod founded and owned three small businesses and spent eight years in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Brod’s enthusiasm and knowledge of state finance gained a positive response from the RCAC.
“Her experience is much beyond her years,” RCAC member Patrick Duncanso n said. “I think she’s an excellent example of a candidate that we can look at to solve the University’s problems, but also to make the University better.”
Tom Devine, an insurance executive who’s involved in the campus greek community, impressed council members with his knowledge of student life.
Devine graduated from the University with a degree in architectural history and business. Devine has volunteered with multiple organizations on campus for more than 30 years.
“My leadership style in all 13 of my major volunteer activities has consisted of vigorous, energetic and consistent involvement in each,” Devine said.
Members of the council found his link to the students of the University as a unique quality that would benefit the board.
“We’ve had very few regent candidates in the past that have known the student experience better than Tom Devine,” said council member Margaret Carlson.
For Devine, four-year graduation, transparency, trust and monitoring institutional performance were key.
3rd Congressional District
Norm Rickeman, 52, a University alumnus who grew up on a farm in Hutchinson, Minn., volunteers at the College of Liberal Arts and taught a one-credit freshman seminar on creativity.
He focused on diversity and equity, stating “equity doesn’t mean treating everyone the same. You’ve got to recognize everyone needs an equal opportunity to succeed.”
The council found Rickeman a qualified candidate.
“He gets it,” council member Harriett Porter said. “His lack of pretentiousness, his thoughtfulness and his words … in my mind qualify him.”
But some members worried about Rickeman’s intentions.
“I think that Mr. Rickeman strikes me as an individual that applied for this position because it was a nice thing to do,” council member David Fisher said. “I just don’t see that as being enough substance to warrant his being elected.”
Dr. Roby Thompson Jr .
On an October morning last year, recently retired Dr. Roby Thompson Jr. was reading the newspaper when he came across a story on the regents search.
“‘Why don’t you do that?” Thompson’s wife asked.
“Having been out of active participation [at the University] for the first time in my life, I really did feel the need and the want to get involved,” Thompson told the RCAC.
He joined the University’s Medical School in 1974 and served as a department chairman, administrator and eventually CEO of University of Minnesota Physicians. Much of his interview centered on his experiences at the Medical School and what his perspective would provide.
Thompson emphasized the need for the Medical School to maintain its focus on education, along with research and clinical operations.
The Board of Regents currently has two members from medical fields.
With the departure of the Medical School Dean Frank Cerra and the presidential transition, many felt Thompson’s inside knowledge of the University would prove invaluable.
David Larson is unsatisfied with the contributions he’s made to the Board of Regents during his first term.
A self-described “change agent,” Larson said it took him years to fully grasp the complexity and culture of the University — and he’s seeking a second term to finish the job.
As a former Cargill executive, Larson described the University in business terms as he talked about borrowing strategies from private industry.
Topping his list of changes: a policy ensuring every employee receives “candid, written, annual reviews,” and the coaching they need to be fully engaged at the University.
Another priority for Larson is keeping tuition affordable. In the face of state funding cuts, the University will have to raise more private money for student support, he said.
“Our middle-class kids are getting hammered ... They have two alternatives. One is to not go to school, which is a disaster … [The other] is to graduate with $25,000 to $30,000 in debt.”
8th Congressional District
Robert Ostlund, a Minnesota native who went to graduate school for educational administration at the University, was the only candidate with K-12 administrative experience.
Many of the skills he acquired from working as a superintendent at schools across the metro area will carry over to a regent position, he said.
“I have extensive experience in generating both private and public funds for education,” he said, adding that he has had success when entering new organizations.
“I seem to bring a calming influence,” Ostlund said.
Some council members had reservations about Ostlund’s lack of volunteer experience, but most were impressed with his presentation and found his educational background and experience getting large building projects funded a plus.
One council member referred to him as a “welcomed pillar of strength.”
“I strongly endorse any individual who can have 15 referendums passed for money for K-12,” RCAC member Margaret Carlson said.
An admitted workaholic who devotes 70-plus hours a week to his full-time job as a Duluth, Minn. attorney, William Burns said he was unsure if he had the time to commit to being a University regent.
“I thought, ‘What have I been preparing myself for?’” he asked. “The University is a great institution and I can’t think of a more important thing to do than be a member of the Board of Regents.”
Although he’s a University of Michigan alumnus, Burns said his work in the Duluth area brought him in frequent contact with the University, and his work on various nonprofit governing boards has prepared him to serve.
Burns described himself as a good negotiator and said he takes a collaborative approach to leadership that involves listening to dissenting opinions while trying to reach a consensus.
He said he still had much to learn about the University and avoided discussing specific plans, but did say he would like the school to become less reliant on state funding while still remaining affordable for students.
“If the University isn’t accessible to everybody, then it can’t be the institution it should be,” he said.
Several council members felt Burns’ interview lacked passion and that he failed to distinguish himself, with one describing it as “disappointing.”
But his strong background and references carried him through. Despite receiving less than half of the council’s votes, Burns was forwarded as a candidate to the Legislature.
Described as a “jewel” and an “absolute treasure” by members of the RCAC, Robert Kennedy brings a background and set of skills unique among the pool of candidates.
The outgoing president of the University of Maine, Kennedy has dealt with many of the same issues facing the University of Minnesota.
Kennedy hit many of the right notes with the RCAC as he discussed his experience shrinking budgets due to state-funding cuts, his efforts to grow research at Maine and his experience commercializing university discoveries.
Kennedy unsuccessfully applied to be the University’s president this past fall, and council members questioned him on how he would adapt to being a board member.
“It’s very important to maintain that fine line between advice … and providing insight but not micromanaging,” Kennedy replied. “The board is there to help but not overstep.”
A 1968 graduate of the University, Kennedy was quick to flash his Alumni Association membership card during the interview.
Although he’s spent his career at schools in other parts of the country, Kennedy is a native Minnesotan who plans to move to Baxter, Minn., when he retires in June.
Despite concerns about his residency eligibility, the RCAC advanced Kennedy as a candidate for both the 8th district and at-large spots.
Positioned at the “apex” of research and development in the state, David McMillan said he thinks the University can do more to take advantage of its discoveries by partnering with private businesses.
Drawing on his experience working in northeastern Minnesota for Minnesota Power, McMillan talked about the role the University plays in driving the state’s economy and opportunities to take advantage of the state’s resources, like the timber and mining industries.
McMillan’s previous experience as chairman of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce appealed to many council members.
“What can the private sector teach us about raising capital, about employing people, about different business models?” he asked. “Those would all be, I think, enlightening discussions.”
Council members were impressed by McMillan’s strong ties to the northeastern part of the state and felt his understanding of the area would make him a powerful advocate for the district.
“David McMillan … has a longtime 8th District understanding and because of [his work] with the power company, a full understanding of the economy,” council member Lois Josefson said.
Allen Anderson left his family vacation in Arizona to attend his regent interview. Originally from a farm in Minnesota, he graduated from the University with a degree in agriculture economics. He was commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1969 where he said he developed self discipline and self control.
An agriculture industry retiree, Anderson volunteers on the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. He also participates in agriculture placement programs and mentor programs at the University, and is a member of the Alumni Association and Alumni Legislative Network.
Overall, members of the council were impressed with Anderson’s well-versed and honest interview. They labeled him as a “quality candidate” who would be capable of holding the position. One council member even went as far to say that he gave an “almost perfect interview.”
Council member David Fisher was especially moved. “This is the only candidate that I could actually see as the chair of the Board of Regents,” he said.
When asked what he’d learned in his first term as a regent, Steven Hunter talked about the steep learning curve that came with the job.
“I knew [the University] was a huge, complex organization,” he said, “But I had no idea how huge and how complex … It was probably two years before I felt comfortable on some issues.”
Hunter emphasized his six years of experience on the board during his interview as he discussed the fiscal challenges facing the University and the steps needed to deal with them.
Painful cuts will be necessary in next 18 months, Hunter said, as the University must work to “rightsize” itself through eliminating programs, bringing down administrative costs through staff reduction and focusing resources in areas of strength.
He said he was proud of the progress the University had made in improving graduation rates, but that more work must be done in closing the graduation gap among minority students.
Keeping tuition affordable, especially for middle-class students, was another goal of Hunter’s.
“I think we can do it in a way that leaves the University stronger than it is today,” he said.
Hunter also serves as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO labor union, which raised some questions among RCAC members concerned about his ability to separate his union role from his University work.