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Lawmakers elect four new members to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents

Four new members of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents posed for photos in the House of Representatives on Thursday, May 9, 2019 shortly after they were elected by the Legislature. From left, Janie Mayeron, Mike Kenyanya, Kao Ly Ilean Her and Mary Davenport. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Legislature on Thursday, May 9, elected four new members to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, bringing in a woman who believes she is the first Hmong American to serve on the board and boosting the number of women represented on the 12-person panel to three.

Members of the House of Representatives and Senate voted to elect Janie Mayeron for the 5th Congressional District seat, Mike Kenyanya for the student at-large seat and Kao Ly Her and Mary Davenport for two statewide at-large seats. Each will join the board for a six-year term. The positions are unpaid.

The elections come after House Democrats for weeks had postponed the votes due to disagreements over who should be chosen to fill the vacancies on the university's governing board. Some DFL lawmakers argued that they wanted to see more people of color and Indigenous candidates elected to the board to help boost recruitment and retention of minority students.

The People of Color and Indigenous DFL caucus on Thursday put forth Abdul Omari, an alternate candidate to run against Mayeron, one of the recommendations that the bipartisan Regent Candidate Advisory Council put forth for the 5th Congressional District seat. Omari, whose term as student regent expired this year, received strong support but came up short of the support needed to win the seat.

Kenyanya, a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth, won his contest unanimously. He did not face a competitor in that race.

And Kao Ly Ilean Her and Davenport were the top two vote-getters in a field of five candidates nominated on the House floor. Some lawmakers changed their votes at the last minute to help Her enter the top two.

“I was keeping track and I was so close," Her told reporters. She said her nervousness prevented her from crying out of excitement. "I’m so glad people changed their minds and voted for me."

Her said she believes she is the first Hmong person to join the Board of Regents and was glad she was chosen through the legislative process, rather than appointed by the governor. Further delay from lawmakers would have pushed the appointments to Gov. Tim Walz for his consideration.

“I feel like I earned this position," Her said.

The result also boosts the representation of women on the board from two members to three. It's not a record, but it signals a step in the right direction in terms of broadening representation on the panel, members of the People of Color and Indigenous caucus said.

"I applaud our colleagues for approving a diverse, qualified slate of new regents,” Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, said in a statement. “Our students deserve to see the faces and hear the voices of leaders and role models that look like them.”

Forty-one applications were submitted for consideration for the four positions and of those, 75% of the applicants were women or people of color.

The new regents said they were glad to see more women elected to the board, but felt there was more work to do in terms of making sure women are represented.

The four said they would have to get to work right away as they got their first email from the board immediately upon their respective elections. And they said they were ready to get right to work.

“We’re dealing with changing demographics in our state, changing needs for workforce, working with the other colleges and systems," Mayeron said, and also pointed to the transition of power between university presidents set to take place next month. "We’ve got a lot of work to that I think we’ll be doing."

New regents

  • 5th Congressional District seat: Janie Mayeron, of Minneapolis, bested Abdul Omari, whose term as student regent expired this year, to win the 5th Congressional District seat. Mayeron is a former U.S. Magistrate judge.
  • Student at-large seat: Mike Kenyanya, a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth, won after running unopposed. He is set to complete his last final exam on Friday and graduate on Saturday.
  • Statewide at-large seats: Kao Ly Ilean Her, CEO of the Hmong Elders Center in St. Paul, and Maplewood resident and Mary Davenport, a former interim president of Rochester Community and Technical College who lives in Mankato, won the two open at-large seats. The pair came out ahead in a field of five candidates up for consideration by lawmakers.