We’ve got to take a good look at the Board of Regents (BOR) to make sense of the decomposition of higher education.
The last twenty-year history of the University of Minnesota (UMN) certainly illustrates this process: the divestment of state support; skyrocketing tuition; the rapid deterioration of working conditions for faculty, graduate workers, and staff; the increasing inaccessibility of public universities to marginalized communities, the corporate takeover; and coordinated right-wing assaults on academic freedom, student activism, and the humanities, liberal arts, and critical inquiry that challenge the status quo.
As always, dissent within the UMN have all called into question our misguided faith in shared governance with the BOR. Consider, especially, (1) unionized clerical and custodial workers’ steadfast struggle for livable jobs and the dignity of their labor; (2) student protests that rebuke the hollow promises of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion because that is all a pack of lies and instead center the demands for Indigenous sovereignty, antiracism, and anticapitalism persistently; (3) graduate student workers’ struggles and faculty union organizing that have always pushed back aggressive union busting; and (4) a clarion call for divestment from fossil fuels and defunding of campus police that student-led movements are promoting.
These currents of resistance are our miners’ canaries, as we confront head on the triumphantly brazen character of the BOR best embodied in the regent Michael Hsu. So long as Hsu sits on the BOR, we can expect the type of revanchism that anchors right-wing populism to root even deeper than it has already.
This year, regent Hsu is vying to be re-elected for another six-year term from the 6th Congressional District. During his tenure, he has doggedly engaged in the consolidation of BOR’s governing power to fortify, from the top, a market-based model of higher education to make the UMN to become an elite institution for the privileged class and in turn empower investors, donors, technocrats, and all the right-wing allies in the public and private sectors. Hsu wants to run the public university as if it is a corporation, in tandem with the UMN Foundation as its hedge fund, unwavering support for the bloated Athletics Program*, and the backing of the Far Right political base. While he so often projects a populist image of himself as a champion of students by contesting tuition hikes, it is but a subterfuge to hide a more sinister motive.
Hsu, like regent Darrin Rosha exhibits enormous contempt toward all those who speak truth to power against the tuition increases and corporate takeover. Since 2018, the BOR and the central administration have repeatedly criminalized student protests. This may well be the local manifestation of a national right-wing attack on constitutional rights of protest and assembly that have been orchestrated by conservative think tanks like the Goldwater Institute, as the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) has documented here. To say that such regents as Hsu and Rosah do not care about the public good misses the point entirely. For regents like Hsu and Rosha are decidedly on the side of politics that is determined to eliminate the right to higher education as a cornerstone of the broader struggle for racial justice, democracy, climate justice, and decolonization.
This political problem, the right-wing proclivities of regents, appeared sharply during the April 2019 BOR meeting. Hsu and Rosha, along with Randy Simonson, a regent elected for his politics on abortion amid the politicization of a critical university reproductive health program (who is also vying to be re-elected for his second term, this time for six years, from the 1st Congressional District) led the way to delegitimize the work of the Task Force on Building Names and Institutional History, chaired by CLA Dean John Coleman and Law School and History faculty Susanna Blumenthal. These men rebuked the Task Force’s recommendations to change building names that bear the deep history of racism and anti-Semitism, namely Coffman Memorial Union, Nicholson Hall, Middlebrook Hall, and Coffey Hall. They had the audacity to challenge the academic integrity of trained historians and by extension, the humanities, critical ethnic studies, and liberal arts.
Sitting in the audience with many others who pushed back these regents’ gross act of academic dishonesty was Dr. John S. Wright, the esteemed scholar of African American & African Studies and English. He was one of the Black student activists, back in the late 1960s, that laid the groundwork for the Morrill Hall Takeover that radically transformed the University of Minnesota. With righteous indignation, Dr. Wright stood up and delivered a soliloquy, while he was threatened with arrest.
How did such problematic regents secure six-year long seats on the Board in the first place?
The answer is simple: the right wing and the state’s Republican party have learned to game the regent selection process in their favor, while their political opposition sits idly by, none the wiser to the dramatic shift in ideological orientation occurring on the Board.
The regent election process begins with the Regent Candidate Advisory Council (RCAC), a 24-member body of concerned citizens that is tasked with establishing the desired qualifications in a regent. They solicit applications for vacant seats on the Board every odd-numbered year, and recommend the names of several applicants for consideration by a Joint Committee of the Legislature. Eventually, a Joint Convention of the Minnesota House and Senate deliberates over the small group of people who have survived the selection process and elects the “best” among them to serve on the Board. The RCAC has just released the names of 20 individuals who will be vetted before the council sends the recommendations to the legislature. Both Hsu and Simonson appear as incumbents. This year, four seats on the BOR need to be filled: the 1st, 4th, 6th, and 7th Districts.
The RCAC was conceived in the late 1980s as a bulwark against political favoritism and patronage in this regent election process. It is debatable whether the council has succeeded in its mission. Right-wing legislators recently discovered they could bypass this first step in electing their extreme candidates to the Board. Both Darrin Rosha and Randy Simonson, for instance, were nominated from the floor of the joint Convention and elected to the BOR.
Another illustration further contextualizes the right’s strategic manipulation via the RCAC. Megan Olson, a former RCAC member and past president of UMN’s chapter of Turning Point USA—an extremist right-wing organization obsessed with the “culture war,” doxxed a class and professor teaching a course on Karl Marx. This led to death threats, serious safety risks for the students and professor, and the shuttling of the class to undisclosed locations around campus. This attack on the fundamental university value of academic freedom (see Turning Point’s Professor Watchlist) is part of a pattern of McCarthyist red-scare tactics meant to stoke fear and paranoia in an effort to snuff intellectual expression by political opponents—all while these right-wing groups cynically and deceptively portray themselves as protecting academic freedom. Megan Olson ran for a state House seat in District 57A in the 2020 elections and lost.
What is to be done when the legislature keeps selecting regents who cannot and will not imagine something different? Even progressive DFL members allow the far right’s corrosive agenda for UMN to be institutionalized.
The answer is simple: we’ve got to band and struggle together with all the constituents of social movements. This process of solidarity-building is everything. It will help us do away with the poverty of imagination so that we can actually work toward universities that have yet to be born and learn how to demand the right to higher education as a cornerstone of the broader struggle for racial justice, labor rights, climate justice, decolonization, and democracy.
*The highest paid UMN employees are concentrated in athletics, starting with Gophers Football coach P. J. Fleck’s seven-year contract of $33 million (the annual salary of $4.6 million), followed by the Gophers Men’s Basketball coach Richard Pinto’s base salary of $2 million, Gophers Athletic Director Mark Coyle’s base salary of $925K, and combined salaries of two assistant coaches in Gophers Football that amount to more than $1 million. The journalist and scholar Jason Stahl culled public reports to show that as much as $11 million annual salaries come out of the Gophers football program alone. Moreover, as he explains, “in central athletics administration, the number of overall positions, and the pay of those positions, has expanded immensely since Coyle’s arrival.” He continues: “22 individuals who are classified as some type of ‘athletic director’. Overall in Athletics, there are now 122 individuals making over $60,000 a year for a total of nearly $24 million. All of these pay figures do not include bonuses which for coaches and top administrators can be immense.” For details, see Jason Stahl, “The Case against Mark Coyle,” published on December 9, 2020, https://jasonstahl.substack.com/p/the-case-against-mark-coyle.
Image: Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press