Higher education

Iowa lawmakers grill regent appointees on funding, tuition, openness

Three face Senate confirmation to nine-member board

The dome of the Iowa State Capitol building from the rotunda in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.  (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The dome of the Iowa State Capitol building from the rotunda in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Members of Iowa’s Senate Education Committee on Wednesday pressed three appointees to the Board of Regents on issues of government openness, rising tuition and the funding crisis facing institutions they would help oversee.

“Quite frankly, I think that the board and our university presidents have not done an adequate job of making the case here, in this building down here with the Legislature, about state appropriations,” Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said during the hearing. “I think in the case of Iowa State and University of Iowa — two major public research institutions — we are going backward compared to our peers.”

In the hot seat were Nancy Dunkel and Nancy Boettger — both former lawmakers who would be new to the unpaid board — and Sherry Bates, who’s coming off a partial term after taking over for former Regent Nicole Carroll, who resigned in 2014.

All three must be confirmed to the six-year terms by a two-thirds Senate majority — or 34 members of the 50-person Senate. Michael Richards, who was appointed on an interim basis in April 2016 after former Regent Mary Andringa resigned, was questioned in February and confirmed March 14.

Because Iowa Code requires the Senate to consider the governor’s appointments within 45 days if the Legislature is in session, senators must make a decision on the three additional appointments by April 15.

Bolkcom delivered his comments after Bates answered a question about how she would advocate for more state resources.

“We have tasked our state resource officers to lobby on our behalf,” she said. “Within the board, we have worked hard at looking at other avenues.”

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The GOP-controlled Legislature recently agreed to take back $20.8 million of this year’s regents appropriations, and proposed a modest annual funding bump for next year that would not restore losses in the base.

Senators asked the governor’s appointees how they would address dwindling resources, rising tuition and mounting student debt.

“One way certainly to keep costs down is to assist students to get through in four years’ time,” Boettger said. “In our family, that was it. You had four years.”

The appointees also voiced support for increased and improved financial literacy education for students on the UI, ISU and University of Northern Iowa campuses. When saying why they applied for the regent posts, all three referenced a passion for making public higher education more accessible.

Through mid-February, the governor’s office had received more than 20 applications for the three expiring terms currently held by Bates, President Bruce Rastetter and President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland.

Mulholland and Bates applied for second terms, but Rastetter did not. Since Mulholland was not appointed again, both will be done April 30.

Boettger and Dunkel were not among the applicants through mid-February, and said Gov. Terry Branstad reached out to them.

Boettger, of Harlan, served as a Republican senator from 1995 to 2015. Dunkel, of Dyersville, was a Democrat in the House from 2013 to 2017.

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State law aims for party balance on the nine-member board by requiring it have no more than five members of one party. The current makeup — five Republicans, three independents and one Democrat — wouldn’t change.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, raised concerns over what some see as a lack of transparency. With Monday’s announcement that ISU’s Steven Leath will leave to lead Auburn University, that means the board will embark on its third presidential search in two years — as it still endures criticism over the way it selected business executive Bruce Harreld to the head the UI in 2015.

Dvorsky said lawmakers have heard rumors that Rastetter, an agriculture executive who heads Summit Agriculture Group, could be in the running for the new ISU president.

In an email, regents spokesman Josh Lehman dismissed that notion.

“Mr. Rastetter already has a job at Summit and intends to keep it that way,” Lehman wrote.

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