Despite announcing last week his campaign to become Iowa’s next Board of Regents president, Larry McKibben during a Monday meeting made a motion the board appoint Michael Richards as the new regent head.
Following that unanimous vote, the board appointed Patricia Cownie as president pro tem. Richards and Cownie take over for former regent President Bruce Rastetter and President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland, who saw their six-year terms expire over the weekend.
The Board of Regents website was updated within minutes of the vote, which came 10 days after McKibben launched his campaign to become the next regent president. He told The Gazette last week he planned to talk with his regent peers in hopes of taking the helm.
But he said after the Monday morning meeting that he nominated Richards for unanimous approval in hopes of avoiding a board split.
“I determined after last evening that the count wasn’t there ... and I didn’t want to in any way create a divisive board for the next two years,” McKibben said. “I certainly was not aware of how much work had been done long before I announced. ... Way too much political things for me to overcome. And I certainly didn’t want to put pressure on my colleagues and friends.”
McKibben also confirmed Gov. Terry Branstad recently called him to discuss the Board of Regents presidency, but McKibben didn’t go into what was said.
He said his goal going forward is to work with Richards and his other regent peers to forward the mission of the board, which “needs to be an apolitical organization.”
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“I had a busy listening and learning 10 days since I announced my candidacy for president of the board,” McKibben said in a statement. “It was a very positive time but also one in which I heard many concerns about how our organization is presently viewed by Iowans, as well as the faculty, staff and students at our great universities.”
Richards, 68, said he started mulling a bid for president after talking to fellow board members and past regent presidents — including Rastetter, with whom he has a long history of collaboration.
“I thought that I might be able to contribute,” he said. “I talked back and forth with other board members, and they encouraged me.”
Accomplishments Richards hopes to achieve as president include landing a “great” new Iowa State University president, addressing potential tuition increases across the board’s three public universities and forming a committee with legislators to collaborate on that topic.
Richards also said he plans to institute public comment periods during board meetings — something the regents long have resisted.
Although Richards also said he hopes to keep politics out of the board going forward, he has a long history of political involvement, support, and collaboration, including with Rastetter, who was a lightning rod for controversy during his time as board president.
Richards is co-founder and owner of Wild Rose Entertainment, a casino and resorts venture of his longtime colleague Gary Kirke. Until its sale, Richards served as vice chairman and managing partner of Quatro Composites in Orange City, which specializes in manufacturing carbon composite equipment for the aerospace and medical industries.
He earned his bachelor’s degree from University of Iowa in 1970 and then a doctoral degree from the UI College of Medicine in 1974.
Richards, Kirke, and Rastetter have been touted over the years as Iowa political “kingmakers” for their support of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in his bid for the White House and for significant political contributions to prominent Republicans like U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and U.S. Rep. Steve King.
In 2009, they urged Branstad to run again for governor, and contributed financially to that endeavor, according to public records. Before their 2009 collaboration on Branstad’s rerun, Richards in 2007 joined Rastetter and others as investors in the Iowa Energy, an NBA D-League expansion team.
Richards, for his part, has given more than $40,000 to the political endeavors of Branstad, who appointed him last year to replace Mary Andringa after she unexpectedly resigned. He’s also given at least $12,500 to Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds since 2013.
The Gazette reported one year ago that Branstad asked Richards to come in for an interview about “a potential appointment” five days before Andringa submitted a resignation letter to the governor’s office.
Immediately after that meeting on April 28, Branstad met with then-Board of Regents President Rastetter in his “personal office,” according to emails obtained by The Gazette. One week later, Richards’ assistant submitted his resume and formal application for the regent vacancy, and Branstad announced his appointment two days later.
When asked about his political ties Monday, Richards said, “I’m not at all apologetic about being a friend of Gov. Branstad for a long time.”
“But I think that most people up at the hill would say that I’m not really so much involved in politics,” he added. “What I’ve done is try to support Gov. Branstad, and I’m a supporter of Kim Reynolds ... but I’m really not in the political process.”
Since becoming a regent last year, Richards has said very little on the board. He hasn’t offered comments, insight or opinion on issues presented during board meetings. Richards said he wasn’t intentionally quiet but rather “trying to understand and learn how things work.”
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“I have a management style that, what we try to do is get the best people in place, and then I’ll get out of the way,” he said. “Let them do what they want. That goes all the way from the regent staff, all the way to other regents and presidents of the universities.”
Joe Gorton, a University of Northern Iowa professor and president of the faculty union, called Richards’ appointment one of the most positive developments to happen on the board in years.
“I’m very excited about working with President Richards,” he said. “I think the past six years have been an exercise in the futility of micromanaging these universities. I’m really looking forward to an era of leadership where the focus is on helping these universities to thrive.”
Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, said he, too, views the leadership change as a chance to “turn the page on a new chapter of opportunity for Iowans.”
“I look forward to working with Mr. Richards and other regents during challenging budget times so we can create opportunity for this generation of Iowans, just like previous generations,” he said.
The board in the coming months is to launch a search to replace ISU President Steven Leath, who heads to Auburn University this month, and discuss tuition hikes after lawmakers during the last Legislative session cut millions from the regent state appropriations base.
The board terms for Cownie and Richards, who served in an interim role until his official confirmation this spring, end April 30, 2021.
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