Gartner: too much partisan politics with Regents

BY LUKE VOELZ | JULY 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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Some local officials agree with recent criticism that higher education in Iowa has grown too politicized. However, leaders say some political influence on the state's public schools might be inevitable.

Michael Gartner, a former regents' president, wrote in a Des Moines Register opinion piece this week that the Legislature wants too large an influence on regent policymaking, with regents too willing to accept that influence.

"The Legislature has begun meddling too much, and the two most recent governors — Democrat Chet Culver and Republican Terry Branstad — have wanted a say in the governance that they are not entitled to under the law," Gartner wrote. "This has led to a politicization of the board for the first time."

Gartner's assessment followed a political shakeup on the board after Gov. Terry Branstad asked former President David Miles and President Pro Tem Jack Evans — both Democrats — to step down from their leadership posts. The two were replaced by Republicans Craig Lang and Bruce Rastetter.

General partisan politics, according to Iowa legislators and University of Iowa leaders, have an undeniable place in the regents' decisions. The key, they said, remains that regents don't use them as their sole influence in governing.

"When you're talking about this amount of money being voted by the Legislature, appointments being made by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, I don't know you how can ever totally get politics out of that," said Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia. "I would hope that the regents are able to keep their focus on how to provide quality education for a reasonable amount of money, but there's an inevitable amount of politics involved."

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, agreed with the regents' apparent political influence but said much of it comes from legislative pressure. He cited declining state support for regent universities — which has decreased 28 percent over the last decade — as evidence.

"The board is far too politicized and not the independent body it should be," he said. "What [the Legislature] is looking at, quite frankly, is micromanaging budgets when it should be left to the Board of Regents and institutions themselves."

These numbers and the regents' leadership shakeup bore little weight on UI President Sally Mason's assessment of the changing regent leadership.

"Our state appropriations come through the Legislature through the political process," she told *The Daily Iowan* Wednesday. "So there's always going to be a political piece to what we do here. We hope, obviously, it's not partisan politics and hope people all across either side of the aisle understand and appreciate the value of higher education and are supportive of it."

UI Provost Barry Butler offered no response to regent issues, stating it fell outside his office's responsibilities.

The strength of this pressure can swing the regents off what should be a balanced forum, said Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville.

"We hope [the Board of Regents is] viewed as independent a system as you can get," he said. "As soon as it becomes an arm of one party or the other, I think that really hurts its credibility with the Legislature."

The senator distanced himself from Jacoby's harsh reading of regent politics, saying such influence is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

"It just depends on how you view the regents and how they vote," he said. "If you are an actual politician that has a 'D' or 'R' behind you, you look and some of those votes seem more political to you than the regents probably thought."

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