Some are concerned about NU regent turnover

Story and photo by Grant Muessel, NewsNetNebraska

With only one incumbent running in four races, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents could get a big face lift this election, and that has some current regents and others nervous.

Regents Randy Ferlic of Omaha, Jim McClurg of Lincoln and Chuck Hassebrook of Lyons chose not to run again, leaving Bob Whitehouse of Omaha as the lone incumbent.

Current regents Tim Clare and Bob Phares and student regents Eric Kamler and Faisal Ahmed agreed that becoming a regent has a big adjustment period.

UNL Student Regent Eric Kamler said it took him a few months before he felt comfortable sharing his opinions at NU Board of Regents meetings.

“I want to make sure the process continues because I believe we have a very effective functioning board right now,” said Clare of Lincoln. “We do things right – and so when you bring in potentially four new personalities, you always run that risk that the personality (of the board) could change.”

Elected in 2008, Clare, one of eight voting members, is serving in his fourth year of his six-year term at the University of Nebraska, one of just a handful of universities in the nation that elects its non-partisan board of regents.

Regent seat comes with challenges

District 7 Regent Bob Phares of North Platte, who was elected in 2006, said it took between 18 months and two years before he truly felt settled.

“(With) five campuses, a large budget, a lot of students and a lot of things happening in a lot of different directions, it takes you a while to get your arms wrapped around all of that,” he said. “There’ll be a learning curve for anybody who comes on the board. Whether it’s two people or four people, the learning curve is still there.”

Kamler, UNL student  regent, said he didn’t feel able to fully contribute until after attending five to six of the board’s monthly meetings.

“Before it was kind of like ‘I don’t know if that’s appropriate at this time’ or ‘I don’t know if that’s an issue I should bring up’ or if that question’s dumb,” said Kamler, one of four student regents who represent the four NU campuses. “Those types of things kind of go through your head during your first few meetings.”

But as far as the discourse and debating of issues, not much will change, no matter how many new members to board has, he said.

Faisal Ahmed, University of Nebraska Medical Center student regent, said the addition of four new members won’t slow down the board’s progress.

“The board has a certain momentum,” he said. “A positive momentum. Any newcomers will see the culture that’s already established; the interaction and relationships with central administration and the different campuses.”

For Clare, a self-proclaimed optimist, significant turnover on the board might not be a bad thing. He said, however, the biggest concern he has is the unknown element.

“We’ve got a history with this group of people,” Clare said of the current board. “We know how this group functions and how they act and how they conduct themselves and how they don’t have vendettas. I trust them implicitly. I’m not saying that I won’t trust these new guys at all, I’m saying that I don’t know.”

Nebraska’s unique board of regents

While Kamler and Ahmed downplayed the potential impact of up to four new regents, UNL political science professor John Hibbing said Clare’s concern for the turnover is justified. A university study Hibbing helped conduct showed that junior members of the Legislature are far less likely to have focused interests and are hesitant to introduce bills, making them far less likely to pass any legislation.

“(The board) is a legislative body in many respects,” he said. “I think some of the same arguments would apply.”

Hibbing, who favors appointed regents like the boards at most universities, said term limits are often to blame in turnovers situations like the one facing the NU Board of Regents.

The issue of stem-cell research is the clearest example of a issue that could resurface with four new sets of ideologies on the board, he said.

“I think it’ll be more philosophical kinds of changes that you might see,” he said. “It always seems like we’ve got that thing resolved and compromises have been struck, and then you have some new personnel or certain powerful interest groups change their minds and we’re back at the starting blocks.

“I know it’s very frustrating for the people at the Medical Center.”

The last time the use of embryonic cells for research was put to a vote, the regents split 4-4.

 Adapting quickly is crucial

The two regents and their student counterparts agreed on the importance of acclimating the new regents as quickly and efficiently as possible. The current regents offer a workshop for the newly elected regents before they take office, in order to quickly introduce them to processes of the board.

Those vying for seats on the board are: David Copple of Norfolk and Jim Pillen of Columbus, who will compete for the District 3 seat; Whitehouse and Larry Bradley of Papillion, who are running in District 4; Lavon Heideman of Elk Creek and Mike Jones of David City, who are competing for the District 5 seat; and former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub and Omaha attorney Ann Ferlic Ashford, who are running in District 8.

Clare said the candidates are highly qualified, something that gives him solace when thinking about the changes in the board’s makeup.

“I’m very confident because these people are very, very successful,” he said. “We’re going to keep moving this university forward. We’re going to get through it, and we’re going to continue to advance the university.”

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