Among the seemingly endless list of duties that fall upon state governments is the appointment of individuals to public college and university governing boards. To streamline the appointment process, many states have established vetting commissions to recommend candidates to the state legislature or governor for consideration. Typically, the legislature or governor will accept the commission’s recommendations and appoint the slate of individuals to serve on an institution’s board.
There are numerous reasons why involving a group of unelected individuals in the trustee selection process is a bad idea. A lack of accountability, impartiality, and the possibility of special interest involvement are among the top concerns. These unelected commissions supplant the judgement of elected officials and remove accountability from those who should be directly responsible for determining who serves on governing boards.
ACTA highlighted this point in Governance for a New Era, a report published in 2014 that brought together 22 distinguished scholars, attorneys, and trustees to map out best practices for higher education governing bodies in the changing landscape of the twenty-first century. Concerning trustee selection, the report recommends “that appointing power rest with those who are directly accountable; commissions lack that accountability.”
Fortunately, the practice of using unelected vetting commissions to select candidates is seeing pushback in at least one state legislature. Minnesota Representative Jerry Hertaus introduced HF 123 in January 2021, a bill to disband the Regent Candidate Advisory Council (RCAC). The RCAC is a group of 24 unelected individuals, appointed by the state legislature, who perform initial screening of candidate applications for the University of Minnesota System’s Board of Regents. The Council identifies candidates and sends its recommendations to the legislature’s Regent Nomination Joint Legislative Committee, which approves or denies the candidates. The approved roster is then sent to the full legislature where the candidates are voted on for appointment.
The RCAC nomination system has the expected flaws, plus Section 137.0246, subdivision 2 of the Minnesota Statutes does not set forth any relevant qualifications for appointment to the Council, other than including two current student representatives. Lawmakers can appoint someone to the council who has no higher education background or experience. And, with minimal oversight and without the accountability to the public that comes with an elected position, Council members are prone to outside influence.
Consider the news coverage surrounding the recent University of Minnesota System Board of Regents election. In March, the Minnesota Student Association (MSA) wrote to state legislators requesting an investigation into the Council’s alleged involvement with the Maroon and Gold Rising Political Action Committee (PAC). According to the MSA, the PAC lobbied lawmakers in order to advance certain candidates in the regent vetting process. Since Minnesota law requires that the regent selection process begin with the RCAC, and multiple members of the RCAC are directly affiliated with the PAC, the process was tainted from the start. The MSA requested that lawmakers return any contributions received from the PAC and that they reject the RCAC’s list of recommended candidates.
Minnesota’s Regent Candidate Advisory Council should be a cautionary tale for other states that have similar vetting commissions or are considering establishing one. As a student representative for the MSA reminded the Minnesota Board of Regents at a meeting in March, it is “imperative that regent candidates be independent and not beholden to any special interest of this group. Unfortunately, this is not what has happened.” By signing HF 123 into law, Minnesota lawmakers can eliminate the current inadequate trustee selection process and reassure the public that transparency in higher education governance remains a top priority in the state legislature.
To ensure impartiality in the selection process, state lawmakers should eliminate these vetting groups and leave the task of appointing trustees to those who are directly accountable to the public—elected officials, ideally the governor, who will have individual responsibility for their performance. Public university trustees are entrusted with significant fiduciary duties and are, first and foremost, public servants. By allowing unelected vetting commissions to steer the selection process, elected officials risk handing stewardship of America’s colleges and universities over to candidates who will not be appropriate for such a duty.