U Regent, Hmong community leader Kao Ly Ilean Her dies at 52

Updated: 4:38 p.m.

A profile photo of a woman.
Kao Ly Ilean Her
Courtesy of University of Minnesota

Kao Ly Ilean Her, a pioneering leader in Minnesota's Hmong community and the first Hmong person to serve on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, died Thursday. She was 52.

Her, who was elected to the regents in 2019, served for 15 years as the executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. Also an attorney, she was the first Hmong woman to pass the Minnesota bar exam. Most recently, she led the Hmong Elders Center.

Her’s longtime friend, MayKao Hang, said Her helped pave the way for young Hmong American women. Years ago the two friends created a nonprofit, Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together.

"We were part of a generation of people in the Hmong community, particularly women who didn't receive the support that we needed to actually advance our education, and to go out and do work,” Hang said. “So I think that Ilean's legacy has always been about supporting and uplifting Hmong women and girls, lifting up young people and really having them become the best version of themselves, especially through education."

During the regents meeting Friday, U of M President Joan Gabel honored Her’s service and contributions to the school and Minnesota’s Hmong and Asian communities.

"Her services to the university was remarkable,” Gabel said. “Her service to the entire state of Minnesota and in particular Minnesota's Hmong and Asian American Pacific Islander communities is so well known and will be a tremendous loss. We're so proud to count her as an alum and an advocate and a friend.”

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Four people are present for a presentation at the Minnesota Capitol.
The four people selected as University of Minnesota regents on May 10, 2019, from left, are: Janie Mayeron, Mike Kenyanya, Kao Ly Ilean Her and Mary Davenport.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News 2019

U of M Board of Regents Chair Ken Powell said Her’s death is “not only the loss of a great colleague, but also the significant loss of a strong voice for diversity and inclusion in the Minnesota communities the University serves.”

“Ilean was on the Board for a far too brief time, but she quickly established herself as a careful listener and a true champion for higher education in Minnesota,” Powell said in a statement Friday.

Her was born in Laos, but her family fled to the United States when she was young because of her father's involvement with allied U.S. Forces in the Secret War. She grew up in St. Paul.

Hang said Her always stayed humble, funny and remained direct but kind in her feedback to others. An entire legion of young people owe her a debt of gratitude for where they are today, Hang said, who recommended her friend for the Board of Regents when Hang was CEO of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul.

“Many of us in the community knew that she'd be a terrific regent because all that she had stood for her entire life was really advocating for education and access and opportunity for students, especially students of color and those who are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Hang, now a vice president at University of St. Thomas.

A funeral will be held on June 5-6 at the Legacy Funeral Home in St. Paul. A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise a memorial fund in honor of Her.