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Evanson: Stacking the Board of Regents' deck

BY KEITH EVANSON | MARCH 13, 2015 5:00 AM

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As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and the state Board of Regents certainly has both. The regents approve every budget for all the state schools — Iowa State University, University of Iowa, and University of Northern Iowa — determining final costs central to students. They are in charge of assigning fees as specific as how much a 12-meal-a-week dining-hall plan will cost next semester.

The regents, who make crucial decisions for more than 75,000 students and faculty in the state, are expected to consist of members exhibiting viewpoints that are diverse and politically inclusive.

That is currently not the case. As reported by The Daily Iowan on March 4, Gov. Terry Branstad has selected three appointees to replace the seats that will become open. With two of the three new appointees affiliated with the Republican Party, if approved, the composition of the nine-member board will consist of five Republicans, one Democrat, and three regents claiming independent status.

The regents declined to comment for this column.

With respect to Branstad, it is his prerogative to nominate the appointees as he sees fit. It is logical that a man who has been an embodiment of the Republican Party for almost four decades would prefer regents who align with his views.

The question remains: Is the power of a governor to nominate decisive individuals that preside over such a large group of students and faculty too much? The grandiose ability of a governor to “stack the deck” in the selection of executive bodies that determine the fate of public university agenda is worrisome.

Of course, the entire decision isn’t technically unilateral; the state Senate still has to approve the nominations made by Branstad. But it is uncommon that the Iowa Senate, even in one currently controlled by Democrats, would reject an appointee. If a nominee fails to gain the 34 votes required for confirmation, the process begins all over again, with another hand-picked candidate from the governor.

Another thing to note is that Brandstad is also acting within the limits of Iowa law. The rule is that no more than five members of the same political affiliation can serve as regents. But who is to say that the three independent members who are moderates on paper act conservatively in practice to accommodate the governor?

This is not to doubt the qualifications and the overall capacity of selected candidates to make decisions with meticulous care. As a big proponent in the system of checks and balances, my concern is that the governor’s influence is too expansive in the realm of higher education. Checks and balances is a system that is most commonly used to describe the relationship among the legislative, judicial, and the legislative branches, but it is also appropriate to check the power relationships locally in the state executive branch.

The vision the governor has for the future of the three state universities in Iowa are to be valued — he is the chief executive officer of the state, but his ideas and political viewpoints aren’t the only ones that are allowed to be heard in meetings. I think Republicans and Democrats would both agree they would like a voice when determining the fate of college education in the state.

The bureaucrats who serve for the benefit of state universities should consist of a diverse group of individuals, with an array of political ideologies to balance the progressive nature of the Democratic Party (which appropriates more funding for public education) and for fiscally conservative Republicans such as Branstad, who approved a budget that cut $75 million from state education in 2011.


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