U of M’s top regent snubbed in reelection bid

The chair of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents is at risk of losing his position after a panel that advises state lawmakers on school governing-board selections bypassed him.
Friedrich, Alex

The chair of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents is at risk of losing his position after a panel that advises state lawmakers on school governing board selections bypassed him amid frustration over the flagship institution’s direction.

Kendall Powell, the former chief executive at General Mills, isn’t entirely out of the picture because the Minnesota Legislature doesn’t have to follow the suggestions of the Regent Candidate Advisory Council. He didn’t return an email message about his next step; prior picks have been made outside of the list of finalists, although that’s a tougher route.

Powell has seen an erosion of support, in part due to simmering controversies at the school.

Advisory council member Dan Wolter, who backed Powell’s successful candidacy six years ago because he appreciated the CEO background, didn’t support his retention.

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“It was a vote of dissatisfaction of what’s going on at the U,” Wolter said, summarizing the sentiment he heard throughout the interview and selection process. “It’s just been one thing after another.”

The process comes at a time when the university is weighing big decisions around its academic health center and the budget for operating its various campuses. There has been friction between administrators and some labor unions, too. 

The 12-member Board of Regents is also facing questions over President Joan Gabel’s service on a corporate board, Securian Financial. The Powell-led board signed off on the arrangement despite misgivings of a few members and howls of protest from others, including state legislators.

And the board’s image took a hit when departing regent Steve Sviggum stumbled over matters of diversity at the school’s Morris campus.

Ryan Winkler, another advisory council member and former top DFL state lawmaker, echoed Wolter about why Powell faces resistance.

“In this case it was leveled at Powell because he is chair of the Board of Regents and people wanted to send a general message on some of these issues. It’s more about people having issues with certain specific decisions than it was about Ken Powell personally,” Winkler said. “The university needs to hear some critical feedback from the public.”

Powell now faces a difficult but not impossible path to reelection, Winkler said.

It’s notable that another regent, Tadd Johnson, was on a slate of finalists forwarded to the Legislature. Johnson, who holds a seat designated for an 8th Congressional District resident, was one of two names sent forward. That’s the minimum number of finalists allowed under council rules.

But Johnson, a senior advisor for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a former professor in Duluth, is also relatively new to the board. He was appointed last year by Gov. Tim Walz to fill a vacancy when another regent resigned.

The regent selection process is always multi-layered at the Capitol. Union, student, business and other interests tend to come into play and those entities push favored candidates. 

So does politics.

Regents are chosen in a joint convention. This year, DFLers will hold sway ultimately because they hold more of the 201 legislative seats — 104 to 97 for Republicans. When Powell was picked six years ago, Republicans were in the driver’s seat because they had House and Senate majorities and more votes overall.

The next step for applicants is a joint meeting of the House and Senate higher education committees.

In all, 12 finalists were advanced. Three seats correspond with congressional district boundaries and one is at large. 

  • In the 2nd Congressional District: Dakota County Commissioner and former state Rep. Joe Atkins and West St. Paul City Council member Robyn Gully, who is also an AFL-CIO training specialist

  • In the 3rd District: Former Gophers athlete and businessman William Humphries; former U.S. Rep. Bill Luther; ICU nurse and union leader Mary Turner and retired health company CEO Penny Wheeler

  • In the 8th District: Current regent Johnson and regulatory research organization president Susan Cohen

  • At large finalists are Minnesota FFA Foundation executive director Val Aarsvold; longtime university men’s gymnastics coach Mike Burns; Minnesota Technology Association official and former Gophers track and field athlete Rebecca Siekmeier; and Flora Yang, current student body president on the Twin Cities campus.

No dates have been announced for the joint higher education hearing nor the full legislative convention to choose new regents.