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Regents and trustees motivated to improve education, serve state

MINNEAPOLIS - Former state Rep. Steve Sviggum figures serving on the Board of Regents, which sets policy and direction for the University of Minnesota, is likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So, when forced by a committee of regents to choose between that no-pay job and an $80,000-per-year teaching job with the university's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, he chose principles over paycheck.

"Service is important," Sviggum said. "It has to be about more than stuff in life."

The Kenyon Republican, a former House speaker, said he is eager to help the university deal with budget cuts and hopes to assist in creating a new relationship with the Legislature that will provide greater funding for meeting performance goals.

"I think it was the right decision to make in regards to having an ability to shape the future for the state," he said. "I always feel I can find another paying job."

Sviggum and others that are or have been regents or trustees for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system say they are proud to participate.

Regent Dean Johnson was a legislator for 28 years, but was coming off a 2006 election defeat when joining the Board of Regents revived his career in public service.

"I wanted to contribute back to the state where I grew up and served most of my life," said Johnson, a Willmar Democrat and former Senate majority leader who often battled Sviggum. "I was honored to be elected."

Johnson said he is amazed at the quality of the medical facilities at the university and he enjoys mingling with faculty and students.

"It is an absolute pleasure to see how intense, smart and wanting to make a difference in life these students are," he said. "You leave a meeting or two and say 'you know what, we are in pretty good hands going forward.'"

While the regent selection process has at times become political, Johnson and others say they have been pleasantly surprised at how regent meetings remain nonpartisan.

With three former legislators in place, the board looks almost like a safe haven for those who have had their fill of politics, said Clyde Allen of Moorhead, chairman of the university's board.

"In my eight years I have not seen one partisan political move," he said.

Allen said his eight years have included helping the university absorb budget cuts, working with the state to create a bioscience alley on the Minneapolis campus and now preparing for Eric Kaler to replace Bob Bruininks as president in June.

Regents get no money other than expenses.

"It's a labor of love and service and it has been some of the best years of my life," Allen said.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty approached David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, seven years ago about joining the MnSCU Board of Trustees. Olson obliged so he could help shape the institutions providing much of Minnesota's work force.

"Higher education is a huge priority to us and our membership," he said.

MNSCU trustees can take a $55-per-meeting per diem, although Olson did not. He served six years, three as chair, then stepped aside this year.

"I am hoping that most people do it because they are interested in higher education and they are interested in the success of students and institutions," he said.

Peter Hutchinson, president of the grant-making Bush Foundation, understands the call to service - and the dilemma Sviggum faced. Hutchinson took a 75 percent pay cut to serve as commissioner of finance under Gov. Rudy Perpich. He also resigned from his own company to run for governor.

"Everyone thought I was out of my mind, and maybe I was," he said. "But where would I get an opportunity like that" again?

Hutchinson said he grew up in a family filled with public servants and always assumed it was something he also would pursue.

"Those are priceless jobs," he said. "You really do get a chance to give back to the community."

Andrew Tellijohn is a Twin Cities freelance writer reporting on the Minnesota Legislature and state issues for Forum Communications Co. newspapers.