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Johnson's election restores University of Minnesota regent seat to Mayo Clinic

She becomes the seventh Mayo Clinic physician to serve as the University of Minnesota regent.

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Dr. Ruth Johnson, a Mayo Clinic doctor who was recently selected to a six-year term to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. (Contributed photo by Mayo Clinic)
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With her election by the Legislature on Monday, Dr. Ruth Johnson became the seventh Mayo Clinic physician to serve on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents since 1907, when Dr. Will Mayo served.

But beyond its historical significance, Johnson's election restores and reinforces a relationship between Mayo Clinic and the university, said one of her chief legislative advocates.

"It's a big deal, because not only is she a strong and able woman, but it links the University of Minnesota not only to U of M in Rochester a bit closer, but also marries the University of Minnesota and Mayo relationship," said state Sen. Dave Senjem, a Republican from Rochester.

RELATED: Four newcomers elected to University of Minnesota Board of Regents

Johnson was elected to a six-year term by a 103-96 vote over agricultural teacher Val Aarsvold in a joint legislative session held Monday and facilitated by Zoom. The seat representing the 1st Congressional District became vacant when the current occupant, Randy Simonson, of Luverne, decided not to seek re-election.

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The last Mayo physician to fill the seat was Dr. Patricia Simmons, who held it from 2003 until her resignation in 2018.

Johnson received broad bipartisan support from Rochester-area legislators, including Reps. Liz Boldon and Tina Liebling on the Democratic side, and Rep. Nels Pierson and Sens. Carla Nelson and Senjem on the GOP side.

The election of Johnson and three other regents Monday rebalanced the male-dominated board from nine men and three women to seven men and five women.

"One of the other things I'm delighted about is that we have significantly altered the gender balance on the Board of Regents," Johnson said in an interview.

Johnson brings a glittering resume to the position. She is the founding director of Mayo Diagnostic Breast Clinic, a practice that sees 10,000 women a year. She is the first woman to serve as an associate director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program. She is a lecturer and chaired the bioethics courses at Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine.

A fifth-generation Minnesotan and lifelong resident, Johnson has deep roots in the state.

"I love this state, and look for opportunities to serve," she said. "One thing I think is really valuable is, there has been no physician or medical person at all on the board for a few years now."

The U still has a new president in Joan Gabel, and is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic with an $80 million deficit. Another challenge, Senjem said, is reviving the reputation of the U's medical school, a once-prominent institution that has slipped in the rankings relative to other medical schools in the nation.

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Senjem also cited the controversy over U men's basketball coach Richard Pitino, whose firing Monday raises the prospect of a $1.75 million buyout for the eight-year coach at a time of possible tuition hikes. Pitino interviewed for the New Mexico job this weekend, and could reduce some of those costs if he takes another job.

Johnson said she looks forward to strengthening the partnership between the U and Mayo. UMR, the youngest of the system's five campuses, is a "good example" of that collaboration, she said. The unveiling of NXT GEN MED last month, a partnership between the U, Mayo and Google Cloud, will serve students preparing for health care careers, she said.

"I think there are things that we can do together that we can't do alone," Johnson said.

Mayo physicians have served as regents for the better part of the past century

With Mayo Clinic physician Dr. Ruth Johnson's election to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, a partnership between Mayo and the U was restored that dates back to the turn of the 20th century.

Dr. Will Mayo, one of Mayo's founders, served as a regent from 1907 until his death in 1939, for a total of 32 years. Since 1907, a Mayo physician has sat on the board for 94 of the last 114 years, according to Mayo archival material.

According to that history, Dr. Will and his wife, Hattie, often welcomed regents aboard their river boats, the "Oronoco," "Minnesota" and "North Star."

In 1915, the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research was established with a $1.5 million gift from the Mayo brothers to the University of Minnesota.

But Mayo's alliance with the University of Minnesota has been opposed by some physicians and factions. During Dr. Will's tenure, legislation was introduced to dissolve the affiliation.

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Dr. Will reportedly spoke without notes to the Legislature in defense of the partnership. It later became known as the "Lost Oration."

"We want to serve the state that has given us so much, and we think the best way we can serve it is through medical education," he said. "I have always thought a good deal of the Gettysburg Address. There's a line in it which explains why we want to do this thing. It is 'that these dead shall not have died in vain.' What better could we do than take young men (and women) and help them become proficient in the profession so as to prevent needless deaths?"

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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