Higher education

Iowa Board of Regents appointees confirmed without debate

'The first real test will be their advocacy this week'

(File Photo) A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(File Photo) A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Gov. Terry Branstad’s three appointees to the Board of Regents sailed through senate confirmation Wednesday, winning unanimous approval from the 49 senators who voted.

The appointees, who had to meet a two-thirds vote threshold, will start their six-year terms May 1. Nancy Boettger and Nancy Dunkel — both former lawmakers — will replace outgoing board President Bruce Rastetter and President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland, whose terms expire April 30.

Sherry Bates, the third confirmed appointee, will rejoin the board after stepping in midterm in 2014 to replace former regent Nicole Carroll, who resigned to move to Texas with her family.

Rastetter, a political power player and founder of Summit Agricultural Group, announced in February he wouldn’t apply for reappointment so he could focus on his agribusiness interests in the Midwest and South America. Mulholland and Bates did reapply, and a spokesman for Branstad said the governor wanted to give Bates the opportunity to serve a full term.

Both Boettger and Dunkel said they applied for the gig after Branstad reached out to gauge their interest. Their applications came after the governor’s office already had received more than 20 applications from individuals across the political, geographical, and professional spectrum — including Van Meter City Administrator Jacob Anderson; Timothy Fitzgibbon, who lives locally but works for the Washington, D.C. based National Council on Higher Education Resources; and Boone Municipal Airport Manager Dale Farnham.

The applicant pool included little, if any, racial diversity — according to application documents provided to The Gazette.

Iowa Code requires the nine member board that governs Iowa’s public universities and special schools have political and gender balance — meaning no party or sex can have more than five representatives.

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Wednesday’s confirmations give women the tilt on the board, with five — including Patricia Cownie, who started serving in 2015, and Rachael Johnson, a University of Northern Iowa senior serving as the board’s required student representative.

The new appointments won’t alter the board’s political balance, which stands at five Republicans, three Independents, and one Democrat and has been criticized by some as violating the spirit of the law.

Boettger, of Harlan, served as a Republican senator from 1995 to 2015 and politically replaces Rastetter, a registered Republican and big time political donor to the likes of Branstad and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Dunkel, of Dyersville, was a Democrat in the House from 2013 to 2017 and steps in to the partisan hole left by Mulholland — the single Democrat on the board.

Bates, who’s not registered with a party, said during her confirmation hearing last month that she’s been working on several issues she’d like to keep pursuing — including making higher education more accessible and affordable; supporting innovation in teaching, research, and economic development; and improving the efficient use of dwindling resources.

Dunkel, executive director of the Dyersville Area Community Foundation, cited her past work as president of Fidelity Bank and Trust and chair of the Iowa Economic Development Board among the strengths in experience she brings to the regents.

“I understand how colleges, how the research, how economic development in Iowa has to tie with work that our schools are doing,” Dunkel said during a Senate Education Committee hearing last month.

During that hearing, Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, questioned Boettger about some of her votes during her time on the Senate. Specifically, he noted her history on bullying and civil rights legislation. Boettger responded by affirming her opposition to discrimination and bullying, saying she likely voted down bills that listed specific groups of people.

“I have been troubled by your previous voting record,” Quirmbach said at the time. “If there is anything further you would like to say about this … I would be welcome to receive any communication.”

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After Wednesday’s confirmation, Quirmbach said he’s had a private discussion or two with the applicants and thinks they all “are competent and hope they will do a good job.”

“The first real test will be their advocacy this week and next for a good budget for higher ed,” he said. “After that, the challenge will be having a thorough and open search for a new president at ISU.”

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said he’d like to see the regents “do a far more effective job of describing the urgent challenge faced by our public universities in remaining world class research institutions, and develop positive relationships with every state lawmaker.”

Michael Richards also was confirmed to the Board of Regents this Legislative session — on March 14 — after Branstad appointed him on an interim basis in April 2016 to replace former Regent Mary Andringa, who resigned citing the level of time and commitment.

Richards, like Rastetter, is a politically connected Republican in Iowa who has made significant campaign contributions to Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, and Peter Cownie, R-West Des Moines, who is the son of fellow regent Patricia Cownie.

On a national level, Richards — like Rastetter — contributed to Christie’s push for the presidency last year.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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