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Senator calls for more oversight of Iowa Board of Regents

Democratic lawmakers, others meet at UNI to express concerns

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CEDAR FALLS — After a 50-plus-person discussion Thursday about the Board of Regents and how it governs Iowa’s public universities, a state senator called for legislation to increase the oversight and transparency of the board.

“I think we need to have a comprehensive accountability bill for the Board of Regents introduced in January,” Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, told The Gazette after the meeting on the University of Northern Iowa campus. “Off the top of my head, I could probably give you a dozen policies that would improve transparency and ultimately get us more accountability.”

That, he said, seemed to be the common thread connecting many of the concerns raised during Thursday’s discussion, hosted by Democratic senators Danielson, Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids and Brian Schoenjahn, of Arlington.

Those who participated in the discussion, attended mostly by UNI faculty and staff but also by several students and a member of the University of Iowa faculty, raised concerns with their inability to address the regents during their regular meetings.

They slammed the style of public meetings held a week before board meetings — where people may speak in front of a camera on their respective campuses, but without any assurance a regent will actually see it.

“They are literally the only public, or quasi-public, body in the entire state — from the soil and water commission all the way up to the executive branch — that does not have a 30-minute public participation requirement,” Danielson said. “It’s a fairly simple building block of democracy, in my view.”

Participants also questioned the makeup of the nine-member Board of Regents, which by law can’t have more than five members of one political party. The unpaid board — appointed by the governor — currently has five Republicans, three independents and one Democrat.

“We are concerned about that,” Hogg said. “We don’t want the regents to become politicized. We want the regents to be independent and broad based.”

Danielson called the allowance for independents on the board and the ability of prospective regents to change party affiliation a “loophole” in the appointment process.

“We actually did some research on this since Gov. (Terry) Branstad’s second administration, and systematically the board participation of Democrats across the hundreds of boards that we have has gone down and the independents have come in to replace them,” he said. “And we have had circumstances where people have changed their registration to qualify as that independent.”

Some have considered the idea of electing regents. Now, the governor appoints regents to six-year terms and two-thirds of the state Senate must confirm each. The Senate currently is controlled by Democrats, but by a slim margin.

“There is by no way a unanimous view of this,” Danielson said. “But it would certainly change who actually shows up and does the job.”

Participants Thursday expressed concern the board wasn’t being forthcoming and, in some cases, too controlling of the university presidents it hires. Much of the conversation hinted at the board’s presidential hiring responsibility after its search for a new UI president last year ended in controversy.

The board is now beginning the process of hiring a new UNI president.

“Sen. Schoenjahn, Sen. Danielson, and I are watching the search process for president at UNI very carefully,” Hogg said. “We cannot have happen at UNI what happened at University of Iowa.”

The UI Faculty Senate and UI Student Government last year cast votes of no confidence in the regents after they hired business executive Bruce Harreld to succeed retired President Sally Mason despite widespread criticism of Harreld across the campus.

After the hire, news emerged that Harreld was afforded meetings and conversations with search committee members, other regents and even Gov. Terry Branstad — meetings not given to other candidates.

Regents President Bruce Rastetter eventually said Harreld was one of the candidates he heavily recruited.

Some participants on Thursday said they are cautiously optimistic about the process to replace former UNI President Bill Ruud, who left in July to lead a small, private college in Ohio.

The UNI process has some important differences from the UI search, Danielson said, including that the search committee will stay intact after recommending finalists and have a late meeting with regents to share views on the remaining candidates.

Still, Danielson said, he and his colleagues will remain vigilant in watching the UNI process unfold. And he has lingering questions about Ruud’s departure.

“If you read between the lines of President Ruud leaving, he diplomatically made it clear that he probably wasn’t able to say all the good things that he wanted to say about UNI,” Danielson said. “If you read between the lines, he felt constrained to ask for greater resources for the University of Northern Iowa.”

Jim Davis, a UNI faculty member who participated in one of many presidential search listening groups on campus in recent weeks, expressed concern with regent resistance “to accept any responsibility for the departure of President Ruud.”

“They did not claim, they did not own that at all,” Davis said. “Which, as far as I’m concerned, severely undercuts any assurances of transparency or process of what they were saying about how they were correcting the search.”

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