Gov. Dunleavy appoints new UA regents, student who sued administration runs for student regent

Legislators anticipate learning more about appointees in upcoming legislative confirmations while elected student regent nominees await Dunleavy's appointment decision.

UA Board of Regents meet for first time since start of COVID-19 pandemic in June 2022. Photo by Matthew Schmitz.

On Jan. 23, Gov. Dunleavy announced the appointment of one returning and four new regents to the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents. The appointment of a student regent will take place after the student associations for each campus have submitted their lists of student-elected nominees to the governor’s office. Dunleavy will appoint a student regent from the elected nominees on those lists.

If a joint session in the legislature votes by a majority to confirm the appointees, they will take office Feb. 6. And the term of the pending student appointment will begin June 1 if confirmed by the legislature.

The student nominees from the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus are Katherine LeBlanc, Coalition of Student Leaders Chair and Riley von Borstel, former student body president at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

UAA’s nominee is Albiona Selimi, Chair of the USUAA Activities Committee. 

According to a Jan. 5, 2022, Alaska News Source article by Sean Maguire, von Borstel was one of four students who sued Dunleavy’s administration on the grounds that it was unconstitutional to drain the state’s Higher Education Investment Fund. The fund provides scholarships for students in the UA system receiving the Alaska Performance Scholarship and provides funding for WWAMI. The Alaska State Supreme Court affirmed Dunleavy’s decision in May of last year, but House Bill 322 passed that same month effectively protecting the fund from legislative sweeps.

The five regents appointed directly by Dunleavy include Bethany Marcum, CEO of the Alaska Policy Forum, Paula Harrison, Director of Human Resources at Enstar Natural Gas, Dennis Michel, founder and president of American Mechanical, Inc., Joey Crum, CEO of Northern Industrial Training, and returning Regent Scott Jepsen, VP of External Affairs at ConocoPhillips Alaska.

The recent appointment of Marcum follows her work as a legislative staffer for Gov. Mike Dunleavy when he was a state senator, and her 2020 appointment by him to the Alaska Redistricting Board.

During her term on the board, allegations of gerrymandering levied at her and other board members led to the Alaska Superior Court’s Feb. 2022 decision to overturn their decision to create two east Anchorage senate seats linked to Eagle River, according to a Feb. 16, 2022 article in the Anchorage Daily News by James Brooks. 

Through her work at the Alaska Policy Forum, Marcum has also advocated for public funding of private education institutions through education savings accounts. Opponents of the practice say it violates the Blaine Amendment to Alaska’s Constitution which has specific language prohibiting parochial schools or religious sects from receiving public funding, but Marcum’s fiscal policy stances generally lean toward reduced government spending and increased private investment. 

In her Sep. 2022 article in Must Read Alaska, for example, she opposed plans to build an Equity Center advocated for by the Alaska Black Caucus among other projects that were vetoed by Dunleavy.

As a senior contributor and political writer for Must Read Alaska, Marcum expressed opposition in a June 2022 article to a new defined benefits pension tier for state employees, which is receiving renewed attention amid a shortage of state workers.

Proponents of the plan argue that it would help the state retain public employees. 

UAA’s student nominee, Selimi, said, “I think advocating for putting money into education would be my top priority.” Selimi is a political science major in her sophomore year. 

“They are always talking about budget cuts, and I do think that a lot of the time education does really take a hit,” continued Selimi when she spoke of initiatives she would want to introduce to the board or its committees if appointed and confirmed. 

In addition, she said that her experience with USUAA helped to prepare her for membership on the board because she has experience representing students’ expressed concerns. When asked about those initiatives, she said, “We've helped advocate for opening the Pride Center and for gender-neutral bathrooms, and we have accomplished the first goal, but the second one is still something that is constantly on our minds.” Selimi was unchallenged in the Jan. 31 UAA student regent election.

“The Board of Regents has the responsibility for approving the creation of new academic programs or for the elimination of state academic programs,” said Zac Clark, UAA Associate Director of Student Affairs. “All of the policies and regulations the university operates by, those are all set by the Board of Regents,” continued Clark who emphasized their influence in the UA system’s direction and priorities in addition to determining official policy.

Student regents are equal voting members of the Board of Regents and represent all 27,000 students in the UA system, but they serve two-year terms as opposed to the eight-year terms their non-student counterparts serve due to academic attendance requirements.

The student associations, such as USUAA and ASUAF, have a March 31 deadline to submit up to two nominees for consideration. The governor then selects and submits a candidate from the list to the legislature for confirmation. 

Requests for comments from all of the recent appointees were not immediately returned.

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