Higher education

Iowa Board of Regents considering fewer meetings

'That doesn't strike me as a step forward'

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

The Board of Regents is considering cutting the number of full-board meetings it holds annually to four and changing the structure of those meetings, according to documents obtained by The Gazette.

A proposal, which board executive assistant Laura Dickson sent in a “confidential” email last week to the public universities, would convene the full board for two-day meetings just four times a year starting in 2017. That’s about half of the seven to eight regular meetings the full board typically holds annually — a schedule still posted online has the board slated to meet seven times next year.

Board of Regents Chief Operating Officer Mark Braun said the board is reviewing its meeting structure and schedule to assess whether it could or should be doing things differently — and potentially better. And, he said, that discussion is fluid and ongoing.

“Nothing is written in stone,” Braun told The Gazette on Wednesday. “It’s an idea we’re kicking around.”

Dickson’s June 7 email to the university presidents’ offices, however, seems to indicate imminent changes.

“The Board of Regents board meetings will soon be taking on a new schedule and structure,” she wrote. “I trust your institution can accommodate us for the following schedule that will be presented for approval at the July 18, 2016 telephonic board meeting.”

The proposal — which lists 2017 and 2018 meetings dates in February, June, September, and December — does not violate Iowa Code, which requires the board to hold at least four meetings a year. It indicates committee meetings — including the property and facilities and the academic and student affairs committee meetings typically held in conjunction with full-board meetings — will “be held outside of the regularly scheduled board meeting times.”

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But the potential changes raise red flags with some constituents, who say fewer board meetings seems counter to calls for improved regent transparency.

“It seems to me that for what now is approaching a $5 billion enterprise, four meetings a year would not be adequate,” former regent Bob Downer said. “The code only requires four meetings but, to the best of my knowledge, that has not been the practice since long before I had any involvement.”

In addition to seven to eight standard full-board meetings, regents typically call additional special meetings throughout the year — meaning they end up meeting monthly or even more often. Downer, who served on the board from 2003 to 2015, said nearly monthly meetings seem necessary for capitalizing on bond sales, which occur at full-board meetings, and accommodating university construction projects that require board approval.

“To have to wait on those I wouldn’t think would be particularly good,” he said, citing weather and other factors that dictate construction schedules.

The notion of holding separate, disjointed meetings for individual issues or projects as they come up — or omitting some issues from board agendas altogether — also has Downer concerned.

“I don’t think yielding additional authority to the staff is necessarily good,” he said, adding that decreasing the number of meetings could turn them into “rubber stamp-type meetings where the actual decision making occurs between meetings.”

“That doesn’t strike me as a step forward,” he said.

Members of Iowa’s university communities recently have expressed concern over transparency — prompting the regents in 2013 to form a “transparency task force.”

Among the outcomes was the creation of public comment hearings on each campus before full board meetings. Those hearings are held in a room without any regents present and are video recorded — sparking harsh criticism from community members who say they want to address the board in person during regular meetings.

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In response to the proposal to cut the number of meetings, University of Iowa Student Government President Rachel Zuckerman said, “This appears to fly in the face of what the public is asking for.”

“People are already upset about lack of accessibility, private meetings, and telephonic voting,” Zuckerman told The Gazette. “I can’t imagine this going well.”

The meeting-change proposal eliminates telephonic meetings altogether, according to Dickson’s email. It also includes a rough outline for the two-day meetings that has faculty and institutional presidents meeting with board leadership on the first day — potentially in closed session.

Although Zuckerman wants to learn more about the proposal, she said board meetings are paramount in promoting collaboration among the regent institutions and — at least initially — she does not support making them less frequent.

“The meetings are also a crucial opportunity for the regents to interact with students, which is fundamental to the work they do,” she said. “Less meetings would likely mean less opportunities for student leaders to interact with the regents, which I do not support.”

Cole Staudt, Iowa State University student body president, similarly said he would be “sad to see the meetings go.”

“I love Board of Regents meetings,” he told The Gazette. “I don’t have the opportunity to meet with many of the regents on a regular basis, and the meetings are a way for me to do that.”

He acknowledged the board’s need to “adapt their schedule to operate efficiently.” But, he said, “I am curious to see how they will handle issues that need multiple reads, like tuition increases.”

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Braun acknowledged the proposal’s many questions and “a lot of moving parts.” But, in response to concerns around transparency, he said changes could mean an improvement — especially related to committee meetings that often occur concurrently and on tight time frames.

“If you have committee meetings in between the board meetings, you will have many more bites at the apple for public discussion,” he said, adding that presentations and related conversations could be more thorough and lengthy.

The Board of Regents Office in the upcoming budget year will take a $300,000 hit in state appropriations, which regents President Bruce Rastetter mentioned last week during discussion of proposed tuition hikes.

Braun said fewer meetings could result in fiscal savings, but he stressed that was not the impetus for the conversation.

“We have had it this way for a while,” he said. “Is there a better way we could do this?”

And, Braun said, perhaps the answer is, “No.”

“This is just a review of it and how we are doing it,” he said. “Something could change. Or nothing could change.”

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