Commissioner Spotlight: Illinois’ Katie Stuart & North Dakota’s Brandy Pyle
Two of the newest MHEC Commissioners recently took time out of their busy schedules to share more about their work and the value of the Compact for their state and the region. Katie Stuart, a Democrat, was appointed to the MHEC Commission in May 2021. She serves as a State Representative in the Illinois General Assembly and is chair of the House Higher Education Committee and a member of the Higher Education Appropriations Committee. Brandy Pyle, a Republican, was appointed in August 2021. She was elected in 2016 as a State Representative to the North Dakota Legislative Assembly, where she is a member of the House Higher Education Committee.
Katie Stuart was appointed to the MHEC Commission two years ago. She serves as a State Representative in the Illinois General Assembly and is chair of the House Higher Education Committee and a member of the Higher Education Appropriations Committee. Prior to running for public office, she was a high school math teacher in Edwardsville and Highland, Ill., near St. Louis, and a college math instructor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. She has a degree in mathematics from Rutgers University.
How did you go from teaching math to running for public office?
When someone suggested I run for this seat in 2015, I thought that idea was insane. I hadn’t even run for student council when I was in high school! But I talked with a lot of people and realized that I could really help students from a different perspective. I was concerned about the disinvestment in education in Illinois. I got elected in 2016 and am hoping to be re-elected this fall.
What are you most proud of in your work at the state level?
I was glad to be part of raising the minimum salary for teachers across the state to $40,000. I was also pleased to help pass a bill focused on lactation rooms. What’s really fascinating about this position is that I get to learn about so many different topics. I appreciate being a lifelong learner and this job certainly is all about that.
Why were you interested in becoming a MHEC Commissioner? What do you think MHEC’s value is?
There are not a lot of things you can invest in and get such a great return like you do with MHEC. But beyond the cost savings, we also get access to tremendous research and information. For example, our higher ed institutions need student data from high schools and I know I can go to MHEC to find out what is happening in other states. Also, being part of a regional compact bolsters what the Midwest has to offer. We all benefit from what’s happening in states around us.
What are you looking forward to in the coming year?
If I am re-elected, I’m eager to dig into being part of our bicameral, bipartisan higher education working group that is looking at how we handle merit scholarships programs to retain talented students. It’s a really fascinating topic that needs review. And I really hope to be able to join the Compact’s convenings in person. It’s such a great mechanism to share what’s working in higher education and to learn from peers.
Brandy Pyle is one of MHEC’s newest commissioners, appointed in August 2021. She was elected in 2016 as a State Representative to the North Dakota Legislative Assembly, where she is a member of the House Higher Education Committee. Born and raised in Willmar, Minn., she graduated from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and moved to North Dakota, where she and her husband, a fellow Carlson School graduate, are raising their four children as the sixth generation on a family farm near Casselton, N.D. Prior to running for her seat, she was the city auditor for Casselton.
Why did you run for public office?
To be honest, I ran because I was asked to! I had two generous advisors who sat me down and let me ask all kinds of questions. They were also really understanding that this is a family decision, given that I must be in Bismarck Monday through Friday during our 80-day session.
What do you like most about your work as a state representative?
My district works as a team, with two representatives and one senator. They are amazing partners for me. I really like the process of building relationships, of sitting down and talking with people about solutions.
In addition to serving on the higher education committee, I’m also the vice-chair of the Political Subdivisions Committee. We deal with levies, property taxes, and all of the things that cities struggle with to balance their budget. We develop administrative rules, so I’ve learned all kinds of things from horse racing to plumbing to teacher shortages. It’s the whole gamut but it really makes me appreciate the value of so many professions.
What brought you to MHEC?
A former commissioner thought it was time for a change and asked me if I would be interested in serving. I love higher education, in all its forms. I believe every person should have something beyond high school. It doesn’t have to be a four-year degree but we really all need something. MHEC provides really helpful information for me in my role on the Higher Education Committee.
What fuels your love of higher education?
We need to be lifelong learners. You can capture different things in a classroom. You can learn and grow so much when you’re collaborating on a technical challenge. Learning to think outside the box and solve problems comes from higher education.
What are you most looking forward to in the coming year — as a legislator and MHEC Commissioner?
I look forward to building relationships with my fellow commissioners. I so appreciate that MHEC provides a space where civil discourse is respected and valued. I know when times get tough, you have to have people to rely on and having access to other perspectives and experiences is really helpful. At the legislature, I’m eager to go back into session to improve work we’ve been doing on scholarship programs. Last session, I got a bill passed that gives students scholarship credit. Basically, if you take a college credit class in high school and then complete a semester of college, you get half of the money you paid for the college credit back in scholarship. It’s a way to spend our money more wisely and invest in our students, who are our greatest assets.