Committee axes secrecy provisions

The group cut terms of a bill that would keep finalists for president private.

Emily Banks

The House Higher Education Finance Committee this week scrapped the revisions to a bill that would make University presidential finalists’ names confidential.

University Regent Frank Berman recommended the change to the House, which another committee approved in March.

Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association and The Minnesota Daily, opposed the bill, expressing concern for the public interest.

“It would have put this veil of secrecy over the entire selection procedure for the University presidency as well as the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities chancellor,” he said.

He said he was elated by the committee’s decision but wasn’t throwing a victory party yet.

“This had turned into a dogfight,” he said, and called Rep. Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, a formidable legislator and a main proponent of the change.

Anfinson called Abrams a “worthy opponent,” and said there’s nothing to stop Abrams from introducing similar provisions.

Regent Steven Hunter said he wasn’t surprised by the second committee’s decision.

“I anticipated that there would be a lot of opposition from the newspaper association,” he said. “And there are some legislators who are very nervous about making exceptions to the open meeting law.”

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, voted against keeping the names of candidates private at the Higher Education Finance Committee.

“We still were uncomfortable as a group,” Abeler said. “We were concerned about the source of the effort and the proper role of public scrutiny in the process.”

He said it was unclear whether all the regents agreed to the changes.

Hunter said the University probably could recruit better candidates for the position if anonymity could be promised.

Although he was not a University regent at the time, Hunter sat on the screening committee during the last presidential selection process. He said he saw a dampening effect by not keeping names confidential.

“There were candidates who were extremely nervous about having their names out there in their home communities,” he said.

Some candidates were in the process of negotiating major gifts to their institutions, Hunter said.

“If their names had been seen in connection with the search process at the ‘U,’ they probably would not have been able to apply because they would have jeopardized those gifts to their institutions,” he said.

“We will just have to wait and see where things go and what kind of success we have in the future in recruiting candidates,” he said.

The committee voted without regard to political parties on the issue, which both Anfinson and Abeler noted.

Anfinson said it was “inspiring” to see so many legislators, both Republican and Democrat, support the importance of the “public’s right to know.”

“There are days when you’re over at the Legislature and you think the process is hopeless – that no one cares about policy and it’s just all politics,” Anfinson said. “But Monday was the kind of day that restores your faith in the process.”

Abeler said it’s nice when issues aren’t partisan.

“It’s actually better when things go based upon someone’s point of view,” he said.

Although some committee members and regents encouraged the University to recruit high-profile candidates from out of state, Abeler said he questioned the practice.

“What’s wrong with finding some Minnesota man or woman who actually likes Minnesota, (who) maybe came up through the ranks?” he said.

“Why do we have to go to New York or Iowa? This is a Minnesota institution.”