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Demands for diversity delay appointments to University of Minnesota Board of Regents

The University of Minnesota flag flies in front of the student section after a Gopher touchdown against the Indiana State Sycamores in the first quarter at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday, Sept 10, 2016. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — State lawmakers have yet to come together to appoint four new members to the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents.

They have until the last day of the legislative session, May 20, to do so.

But the odds that they will are looking more and more unlikely. If the two chambers do not call a joint convention — a gesture that is meant to be bipartisan — DFL Gov. Tim Walz will fill the four vacancies. The openings include a 5th Congressional District seat, two at-large seats and a student seat.

So what’s the holdup?

The delay is due in part to disagreements between members of the DFL-controlled House. Some Democrats want to use the opportunity to elect four people of color to the board. They say the University of Minnesota has made little progress in its quest to improve the retention and recruitment of minority students, and that a more diverse Board of Regents would see that these goals are fulfilled.

“We can’t continue to accept business as usual and accept the lack of inclusion and efforts to diversify this important institution,” read a letter from the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus in February. The letter was signed by 14 DFL representatives and five DFL senators.

The university’s 12 regents have say over policies, programs and yearly budgets. The unpaid board is made up of members from each congressional district and four at-large. Right now, there are 10 men and two women on the board. Three members are people of color.

A nonpartisan, 24-member council comprised of public stakeholders recruited, screened and interviewed regent candidates last year. The Regent Candidate Advisory Council sent recommendations for 16 candidates, including five people of color, to a legislative commission in January. That panel picked finalists in February.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate were supposed to call a joint convention to vote on and elect the regents. It has yet to be scheduled, and it is unclear if it will be.

Democrats: We're focused on the budget

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said that Democrats need to be on the same page before they vote. He added that lawmakers in the House want to put forward their budget bills first.

“Honestly, the work of the budget is a lot more consuming of our attention,” Winkler said.

Daniel Wolter, chair of the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, said the delay could have long-term implications.

Dragging out the process by punting the picks to the governor could hamper efforts to recruit the best candidates, he said.

“I will say I think that is an impediment to getting quality candidates. Just people who don’t want to have to go through this political process,” Wolter said. “The longer this drags out … the more negative impact it will have on future efforts to recruit candidates for the Board of Regents.”

Republicans: This should be a 'nonpartisan issue'

Senate Republicans have said the selection process should be a “nonpartisan issue.”

Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said that delaying the process any further could impact other work at the Capitol.

“It’s an historic delay on the obligation of the Legislature to appoint members to the board,” Gazelka said. “I am concerned the end of session negotiations will be delayed by future internal fights within the House DFL Caucus.”

In the past 90 years, lawmakers have failed to elect new regents on just four occasions: 1933, 1937, 1973 and 2001. Gov. Jesse Ventura picked five new members in the most recent case.

Governor weighs in

The Legislature elects regents to six-year terms. The governor can only appoint them to two-year terms.

Walz weighed in on the impasse on Wednesday. In sum, he told reporters that the Legislature should pick the regents, but that his team will do its due diligence if it comes to that.

“I’m a big believer that when you set up these systems to find the right people, we should try and follow them,” Walz said. “I think the system as it’s set up now includes more stakeholders.”

St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Dave Orrick contributed to this report.

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