By Suzy Frisch
Forty years ago, Minnesota became one of the first states in the nation to pass legislation requiring student representation on the governing body of a public university. Since then, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents has included a member who was a student at the time of his or her election.
“The regents then and now are decades removed from college,” says Mike Sieben (J.D. ’72), who championed the legislation when he was in the state House of Representatives in 1980. “I felt that it would enhance the board to have input, commentary, and observation from someone who is walking or biking to class and knows all the issues that students face.”
Students did—and still do—have an advisory role through the representation of eight students who are appointed to one-year terms. But the legislation gave a student regent full voting authority and a six-year term. Though controversial early on, over time the practice has proven valuable not just for the Board of Regents and the student body, but also for the students who have served.
Michael Unger (B.E.S. ’77, J.D. ’81), an injury attorney and founder of Unger Law Office in Minneapolis, became the first student regent in 1976. The Legislature wasn’t due to elect the first student regent until the following year, but Unger got a jump on the position when Governor Wendell Anderson (B.A. ’54, J.D. ’60) appointed him to complete the term of Regent George Latimer (B.A. ’87), who resigned to run for St. Paul mayor. Unger served until 1983.
During his term, one of the memorable issues was a First Amendment lawsuit involving the Minnesota Daily. Regents voted to eliminate funding for the newspaper after its humor edition offended some readers. Unger and two other regents opposed the measure. The Daily sued in federal court and won. Unger also contributed to debate and decision-making about a University hospital expansion.
Unger believes that student regents have contributed significantly to the University’s governance during the past 40 years. “They have helped create a culture where students and students’ concerns are more carefully respected and not easily dismissed as being ill informed or parochial,” says Unger, who is also past president of the Alumni Association.
Lakeesha Ransom (M.A. ’03, Ph.D. ’07), vice provost and dean of the honors college at the University of Akron, served as a graduate student representative for one year on the nonvoting student advisory body while earning a doctorate in human resources and strategic management. She was elected the student regent in 2001 for a six-year term.
Ransom found the difference between being a regent and a student representative striking. As a regent, she observed that her views were taken more seriously, something that came into play early on during her term when she was thrust into heated deliberations over whether the University should join a University of Arizona astronomy research project on Mount Graham, a sacred site for Apache people. Despite sit-ins and other protests, the board, including Ransom, ultimately voted yes. “It was a very difficult decision for everyone involved,” she says. “Everyone was perplexed in how to manage it. It helped me see myself as just another member of the board.” Ransom’s experience as a regent, where she helped govern a complex institution with varied stakeholders, perspectives, and missions, got her interested in higher education.
“As a dean, I think those experiences helped me understand the value of different constituent voices,” Ransom says. “Having the ability to think openly and broadly about grand challenges and opportunities, collect information and data from disparate areas on campus, and aggregate it to a more strategic level—much of that I attribute to my time on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.”