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Legislators look to reform regents

BY EMILY BUSSE | JANUARY 21, 2010 7:30 AM

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If passed, a state legislator’s proposed bill could result in the merging of the regent institutions’ administrations and combining the universities under a single president.

Rep. Linda Upmeyer, R-Garner, said her proposal, one of nine presented by Iowans for Tax Relief, could potentially save the universities $62 million.

“Doing things differently is not always a bad thing,” Upmeyer said. “My goal is not to hurt the universities but to find opportunities to do things better, more streamlined, more transparent.”

Upmeyer’s bill is the second one set to be proposed this session that would alter the structure of higher education in Iowa.

Because each university runs independently at present, Upmeyer said, combining administrative functions such as payroll, human resources, and hiring into one system would save money.

“I think we’ve already got a bureaucratic system,” Upmeyer said. “There are huge layers of administration. Talk to some of those people who try to work through this maze.”

But the proposal has received some criticism, and some say it will do just the opposite.

Other Big Ten universities have merged administrations.

The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents has operated on a combined system similar to Upmeyer’s proposal since the early 1970s, said board member Judith Crain.

The setup, consisting of 13 four-year institutions, 12 two-year colleges, and university extensions, runs under a single executive president and a chancellor for each school.

“I believe our system is working well,” Crain said.

But Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said he is “not ready to go there yet.”

“I would be worried that bill would go to a point where three separate universities could lose their identities,” he said.

Kaufmann, who began drafting his own Regent Reform Bill in December, said he has now split the bill in two, with one focusing solely on proposing that state Board of Regent members be voted into office instead of being appointed by the governor. Two separate bills would double his chance of getting his ideas passed, he said.

He also added a Tuition Reduction Fund to his bill, which would use donations and awards from lawsuits to counter tuition increases.

Another of Kaufmann’s main points is to increase the number of student regents from one to two, a change that could introduce an entirely new perspective to the board’s decision-making, he said.

Currently, Iowa State University student Greta Johnson, is serving a six-year term as the only student on the regents.

Six of the UI’s 10 peer institutions have students on their governing boards, though none of the student terms last longer than two years and some of them cannot vote. At both Wisconsin and Arizona, two student board members serve two-year terms.

The Michigan Board of Regents does not appoint a student to its eight-person board, said member Julia Darlow. Instead, the student-body president attends and presents at each public meeting, she said.

“We’re always looking for ways to do things better,” she said, and the board is “moving in the direction” of more student interaction. “I think to the students that want it and welcome it; it’s something that I think we should be responsive to.”

Kaufmann and Upmeyer said they’re unsure how far their respective bills will proceed through the Legislature.

UI political-science Associate Professor Tim Hagle, who advises the College Republicans group at the university, said bills such a Kaufmann’s and Upmeyer’s would have a hard time passing, given the majority of Iowa legislators are Democratic and adjusting to a shortened session.

“Something like this is not high on the list,” he said. “It may be something more on the wish list.”

Legislators will sometimes present bills with a low probability of passing in order to get ideas out there and start discussion, he said — a strategy Upmeyer admits to.

“I would anticipate a lot of changes [to the bill],” she said. “It’s just by having these discussions, you may identify additional places we haven’t even considered.”

Kaufmann said his bills, especially mandating regents be voted on, is worth the fight.

“I am anticipating that certain legislators are probably going to want to bury this thing,” he said. “But I’m going to make somebody bury it twice before I give up on it.”


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