Corbett: Abolish Iowa's Board of Regents

Governor candidate suggests trustees for each university

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DES MOINES — Days after Iowa’s public universities unveiled proposals to raise tuition by as much as 41 percent in five years, GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron Corbett slammed the suggested hikes Wednesday and said he wants to do away with the Board of Regents and its staff.

In its place, Corbett — in his final term as Cedar Rapids mayor — suggested creating boards of trustees to oversee each of the universities. The regents, he said, have become “just another layer of government.”

“We have the governor, we have the Legislature, we have the Board of Regents, we have the university business offices, we have the Student Senate, we have the Faculty Senate,” Corbett said. “So I would do away with the whole Board of Regents system and go to a trustees system.”

He isn’t the first to suggest big changes to the regents system, which has been a lightning rod of controversy for years — over potential conflicts of interest, proposed changes in the funding formula for its universities, presidential hires and — of course — tuition increases.

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, in 2015 called for the election of regents. That bill was unsuccessful, and the unpaid regents remain appointed by the governor.

But Corbett, while at the Iowa State Fair on Wednesday, said substantive changes afoot across the system makes this an opportune time to eliminate the board.

He cited the board’s apparent willingness to let the universities go their own ways in setting resident undergraduate tuition — which historically has been closely aligned. While the UI and ISU pitched hefty hikes, the smaller University of Northern Iowa recommended modest increases.

“Since they broke the mold this year on treating every university different, you might as well just let every university govern themselves going forward,” Corbett said.

He suggested instead trustee boards of seven to nine people — some named by the governor, but along with student, faculty and alumni spots.

Since arriving, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld has pushed for more campus control over his institution, citing vast differences between the three regent universities and arguing for power to set tuition, inform admissions and partner with private entities in new moneymaking efforts.

Corbett suggested that ditching the board — which has an office budget of $4.2 million — could save money. The office employees 18 staff members and has — in years past — circumvented a $154,300 legislative cap on the board’s executive director salary, paying him more than $338,000 including incentives.

“We’re trying to reduce the size and scope of government,” Corbett said. “This is just an outdated model that spends $4 million to $5 million a year with a highly paid executive director … If we’re getting serious about reducing the size of government, we can start here.”

The board currently is conducting searches for a new executive director and a new president at Iowa State University.

In the last legislative session, amid a state budget shortfall, lawmakers took back more than $20 million midyear from the fiscal 2017 regents budget and then cut another nearly $10 million from the base appropriation for its current budget.

That has prompted the universities to request steep tuition hikes and the board this summer created a task force to look at five-year plans.

In those discussions, the UI and ISU asked the board to approve five straight years of 7 percent hikes to resident undergrad rates.

Corbett blasted the proposals Wednesday. Gov. Kim Reynolds — who he faces in the June 2018 GOP primary — did so Tuesday.

“There is no way that Iowa families could afford a 7 percent increase over five years,” she said in a news conference.

The Board of Regents, created in 1909 by the Legislature, consists of nine members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. The board governs the state’s three public universities and two special schools — the Iowa School for the Deaf and the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School.

Stephen Schmidt / The Gazette

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