This piece is part of a larger series on the Board of Regents and power structures in St. Olaf’s college governance.
St. Olaf’s Board of Regents is the College’s governing body and holds power to shape the College’s policies, infrastructure, administration and priorities. Many students and organizations view understanding the power that the Regents hold as central to their goal of creating change on campus.
Legally, St. Olaf College is a nonprofit corporation, and Article VI of the school’s Articles of Incorporation establishes that, “The management and direction of the business and affairs of the Corporation shall be vested in the Board of Regents.”
St. Olaf’s Board of Regents is composed of 28 voting members who are elected or appointed by current Regents. Twenty-five of the members are elected to serve six-year terms, with the possibility of re-election for a second term. Two members of the board are appointed to three year terms, one who is a recent graduate of St. Olaf and the other as an alumni liaison. The final voting member of the Board is the College president, who must be “a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or its successor” as well as “elected by the affirmative vote of not less than two-thirds of Regents,” as written in the Board bylaws.
The power of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) in the governance of St. Olaf extends to determining the composition of the Board of Regents. As written in the Board’s bylaw, at least 40 percent of Regents must be members of the ELCA, and a majority of Regents must be “members of the [ECLA] or another denomination with which the [ELCA] or its successors has established full communication.”
The existence of colleges as corporations with governing bodies in the United States has origins to the mid-1600s. In 1650, Harvard College was granted corporate status in a charter by the legislature of Massachusetts. Throughout the following centuries, thousands of colleges and universities were established in the United States to be corporations controlled by governing boards of trustees. By the turn of the 20th century there was a marked shift to board members being businesspeople as colleges and universities assumed a business model of operation.
The emphasis on capital is seen in the current St. Olaf Board of Regents membership. Regent Mark Jordahl is the president of private wealth management at U.S. Bank and at least eight of the Regents work or have worked in private equity, venture capitalism or investment banking.
Eight is also the number of Regents who are women. There are no Regents who are women of color.
At St. Olaf, beyond the power of electing other board members and the College’s president, the Board of Regents controls both the school’s annual budget and long term finances, assesses the quality of academics, approves tenure for professors, oversees campus infrastructure and “monitors student outcomes, community well-being and institutional effectiveness.”
In October, February and May the Board of Regents meets to make decisions as well as create and advance the College’s strategic plan. However, the Board or Regents has been more active than usual since the COVID-19 pandemic began, participating in virtual special meetings every month to orchestrate the College’s response and re-opening.
The Board of Regents Student Committee (BORSC) is a branch of St. Olaf student government intended to “examine and relay student concerns, perceptions and interests to the governing body of St. Olaf”. All of BORSC attends the October and May meetings on campus and gives presentations to the Board of Regents. The February meeting is a school-funded out-of-state meeting and only the BORSC Coordinator attends from the committee.
Yet despite student involvement in the Board through BORSC, “The Board of Regents doesn’t have any accountability towards us,” said Fricka Lindemann ’22, this year’s BORSC Coordinator. “So we can tell them whatever we want and they can do whatever they want.”
While BORSC is designed to address the Regents, students and alumni can communicate their concerns in other ways. In the summer of 2020 the organization Oles for Racial Awareness, Change and Equity (ORACE) submitted a petition to the Board of Regents calling for a new College president and provost.
In the Board’s response, Chair Jay Lund wrote that “the Board is fully committed to continuing the important work to make St. Olaf an anti‐racist institution. We also fully support President Anderson and his leadership team. We are confident we have the right leader to lead the College through this extraordinary time as we navigate the global pandemic and confront the racial injustices that plague our society.”
As students attempt to create change on campus through the Board of Regents, many students are questioning the nature of the power structures between administration and the Regents. Understanding this power balance and decision making processes is a main goal for Lindemann this year. In the past, Lindemann said she has viewed the dynamic as the administration taking the lead and only turning to the Board when “there is a really major decision to be made”.
“I’m now wondering if it’s more reciprocal and the Board of Regents also reaches out to the administration,” Lindemann said. “Especially with the racial justice side where the school already, at several points in time, denied the idea of demands from the students to [the Board] without any discussion really. And I’m wondering if the Regents have any real influence there.”
As BORSC works to understand the true nature of the Board of Regents’ power, the committee is also taking steps to give the general student body a platform to voice their concerns to the Board of Regents.
In an email sent out on Sept. 14, BORSC encouraged students to fill out a form to “share your opinion and experiences, also anonymously, however long or short.” The questions that BORSC is focusing on for this fall, as written in their email, are “What actions need to be taken by the College and on campus regarding race-related matters?” and “How did the reopening during a pandemic go?” BORSC will use responses to the form to share student input when the Board of Regents meets next on Oct. 8.