OPINION: What’s going on with the Board of Regents?


Matt Sutton

It is important to know both the internal and external happenings of the Board of Regents in order to keep our university representatives accountable. Graphic by Hailey Stessman/The Gateway

When many people talk politics, conversations largely remain within a national framework. Even when discussions broach state or local levels, little do they stray from highly visible positions like governors and state senators or municipal leaders such as mayors and council members. Scrutiny is not often given to more down-ballot and niche offices.

Take the Board of Regents for example. Though more notable officials more noticeably affect our community at large, we at the university are part of a compact community within the university system itself. The University of Nebraska Board of Regents website describes the board as “the governing body for the University,” providing strategic leadership which promotes and advocates university missions. It is also the last stop for budget approvals, thereby directly affecting degree programs and university services, both in their availability and resource allocation.

Showcasing the power of the board is the closure of the UNO Center for Urban Sustainability. Started in 2013, the center, according to UNO Office of Sustainability Coordinator Kristina Hughes, hadn’t received enough funding since its inception. The center was established for UNO to serve as a community resource where businesses and organizations could further their understanding of sustainable urban development practices.

The lack of funds generated “time challenges and funding challenges creating difficulties in pulling faculty to the center, [since] if you don’t have money to fund their time it’s going to be really challenging to get folks to work for the center,” Hughes said. That funds weren’t appropriated indicates its low-priority status among the Board of Regents, which formally closed the center in June of last year.

As students, educators and faculty, we should remain privy to who is setting the direction of our university. It is this institutional system which provides the foundation for future leaders of our region. We should all consider it a serious matter who exactly is setting that foundation and what their motives might be.

Each year, a new chair and vice chair are elected on the board to lead its direction. This year, Jim Pillen, District 3 representing the northeast corner of the state, was elected to chair, accompanied by Vice Chair Paul Kenney of District 6, comprising the state’s east-central region.

Given the pattern of board ascendency in decades past, their positioning comes as no surprise. Since at least the turn of the millennium (yes, the year 2000), the chair member has almost exclusively held vice chair the year preceding their appointment, with only a couple of exceptions due to those who would ascend no longer holding membership on the board.

Consistently, the same names are seen to revolve into the two leadership positions every five to six years, repeating their leadership terms, particularly current members Howard Hawks, Tim Clare and Bob Phares, and former members Kent Schroeder, Bob Whitehouse, Jim McClurg, Charles Wilson and Chuck Hassebrook. This trend makes identifying future leaders increasingly predictable. It also begs questions of just what is going on with the board, if these leaders are truly its best representatives and whether or not their positioning is simply canned.

If these leaders are canned and pre-planned, then the question of why arises. Consider current leaders Jim Pillen and Paul Kenney. Pillen operates hog lots across several states which hold 55,000 pigs at any given time, while Kenney holds the position of chairman with KAAPA Ethanol, annually producing over 300 million gallons of the fuel, again across several states.

Universities are increasingly eyed as institutions where individuals can prepare for current job markets, instead of their traditional function of creating populaces with well-rounded educations, where knowledge is provided for its own sake. It’s surmisable that Pillen and Kenney may be taking advantage of this sentiment to unethically utilize their positions by setting the direction of university programming for their own personal benefits.

This could occur not only by setting students on a path toward improving financial conditions of Big-Ag operators such as themselves (through, for example, the Nebraska Extension Office), but also by dismantling the mechanisms through which communities may produce the types of persons who may pursue careers regulating such operators out of existence, or at least into compliance.

Larry Bradley, Ph.D., UNO adjunct professor of environmental geology, has his own personal experience with the Board of Regents as thrice runner-up for District 4. Having served as Minority Populations Representative for the Nebraska Environmental Quality Council from 2005 to 2009, and as a current board member of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, initially elected there in 2008, it would not have been his first traverse into public service.

He is no stranger to criticizing decisions made higher up in the university chain. This summer, he’ll be present on PBS in a three-part series, detailing concerns he raised in 2003 regarding a high-profile university-sponsored paleontological excavation on Santee Sioux native lands in Knox County. Because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Bradley wanted to include Native American school students in the dig who otherwise would never be provided such a chance. In seeking permission for their participation, Bradley was told it would be unsafe. A couple of months after his request, “the University of Nebraska state museum website depicted pictures of non-Native American kids, about five years old, participating in the dig, their hands all full of plaster, blatant discrimination by the university,” Bradley said.

In his role with the EQC, he witnessed firsthand the potential bad practices that may crop up to disaffect underserved rural populations. Bradley commented on how rural residents are driven from their homes due to livestock operations like Pillen’s, and how it became apparent to him that, while not common practice, there is little to no recourse for certain extreme instances of regulatory violation.

Cases of such violation include instances where operators would pump overfilled manure lagoons or dump pesticides into small streams, generating large plumes of animal waste and toxins which contaminated downstream water bodies with disastrous consequences. Motions Bradley offered to counter such practices ended up dead on arrival at the EQC. He suggested that “the Board of Regents would have to know [that’s occurring]” and that the Board could “work in conjunction with the [Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality]…with remote sensing capability to monitor in real-time when we have a pollution situation in a creek bed, a big fish kill and so forth.”

Perhaps the reason measures he suggested weren’t taken is because our leaders are intentionally digging their heads in the sand—we are a state with much of it, and the dunes comprised are plenty deep. Maybe it’s because leaders such as Pillen and Kenney, and past others, have been too closely knit to the operators who would stand accused. As Bradley put it, “you have to wonder… how much [operators] work together to ensure that the right candidate for an open position gets elected versus one that’s pro-environment.”

Regarding ethanol production, much of the wildlife, which once offered in abundance food for local populations, have had their lands displaced for corn and soy fields for purposes of the factories that produce it. Bradley offered insight into this matter as well, commenting that “the ethanol industry came in to plant corn on every square inch of an acre, and so thus goes pheasant habitat and so forth and then how much money can the federal government or other government entities offer for the [Conservation Reserve Program] to keep that natural grassland, for habitat, for fauna and flora” to compete with profits generated by the ethanol industry.

At least some ethanol operations are owned by outside, even foreign, entities. Questions posed by Bradley are “Do they give a hoot about the environment? Will they follow the rules and regulations? Will the Attorney General enforce those laws? Will NDEQ come down on them?” Large ethanol plants, ever-more-welcome in the state of Nebraska, align along the Platte River, running it dry with their intensive water needs and threatening and disappearing endangered species. The ethanol industry, powerful both nationally and internationally, is considered by Bradley to “have a stranglehold on the state of Nebraska.”

More than what the board does, Bradley is concerned with what the board does not do. It does not raise issues that are of public concern. Elected officials utilize their roles to make sure concerns go unaddressed, unheard and ideally unraised. Their accolades and honors are waved around like badges of authority meant to convince the public that they know what they’re doing and that their interests are reflective of the interests of the community at large. They seem to operate on the principle that what the public doesn’t know won’t hurt them.

Board members count on an impressionable university populace to entrust in their authority, to believe that the board has their best future interests in mind. It is at least questionable whether or not that is the case, and their ties seem to suggest that they have few interests in mind other than their own. So long as students upon graduation can secure jobs, ones paying livable wages like those Pillen and Kenney can presumably offer, it seems assumed that ethical considerations and community impacts will be set to the wayside.

Beyond vague notions that the board singularly prioritizes university needs in all decisions, UNO Student Regent Aya Yousuf, sworn in last April, offered little insight into its inner workings. As a student regent, Yousuf said she feels the board “appreciates having a student perspective…and works diligently to understand student concerns” but that she only holds “a symbolic vote, so it doesn’t really count toward final decision making.”

Most enlightening to her in the role has been “how much partnership goes into each resolution passed, each policy implemented or each program added [with] so many partnerships between administration, faculty, staff, private partnerships, government partnerships, community non-profits and the list goes on and on.”

When it comes to funding and shuttering departments, Yousuf said “it’s mostly a factor of how many students are enrolled in each program [and] programs with low enrollment of students are looked at for reevaluation. [The board] is going to fund and defund programs…based on how many students are going to be impacted.” Aya acknowledged that STEM and IT job markets are increasing student enrollment in those study areas, commenting that they are “more in demand because of how the market is moving.”

If students pursue their educations with the idea that they should be prepared for the job markets they intend to enter, then programs will be tailored to set them up for success in that aspect. The drawback is that some programs will have to sacrifice quality, or perhaps be nixed altogether, as student engagement dwindles. What isn’t considered is the potential future popularity of such programs given paradigm shifts. Still, Yousuf said she believes that academic freedom is not an issue at UNO.

Board of Regents members serve six-year terms. While it may be some time before you can elect a new representative, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t remain informed about what current ones are doing in the years in between. Member decisions hold tangible effects on student experiences and outcomes. And for what it’s worth, student regents serve one-year terms so the voice representing student bodies can more easily be rotated than those members holding effectual power.

Democracy requires constant vigilance at all levels. If leaders are to be held to account then it is important to maintain some level of awareness of their activities, both on and off the board. Actions don’t emanate from vacuums, and as humans we often have motives for our decisions. Sometimes these can be as simple as going to school to find a job. Sometimes they can be as complex and nefarious as running for political office to further personal agendas. Elected officials deserve intense scrutiny of their actions and motives, and if constituents aren’t willing to keep that watchful eye then they may well be opening the doors for the fox to enter the henhouse … or perhaps in this case, the hog lot.