Transparency of presidential search questioned

Conor Shine

The University of Minnesota successfully wrapped up the search for its next president with last week’s hiring of Stony Brook University Provost Eric Kaler.

The five-month search process was conducted largely in private and ran smoother than previous searches – which have included leaked names and closed-door appointments—but it was not without controversy.

Two of the four semi-finalists for the presidency dropped out of consideration to avoid having their names made public in a pool of candidates. Of the remaining candidates, Kaler was the only one selected as a finalist.

Once on campus, Kaler spent two days meeting with faculty, administrators and the public, capping off his visit with an hour-long interview with the Board of Regents Thursday.

Although Thursday was the first time the regents had met with Kaler as a board, they had already had a chance to interview him in groups of three on Wednesday morning.

University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg characterized the meetings as “informal gatherings” not subject to the state’s open meeting law, and the meetings were not included on Kaler’s itinerary. 

The University maintains that it followed the state’s open meeting law, which requires meetings of public bodies be open if a quorum is present, throughout the entire search process.

 In the case of the Board of Regents, seven members makes a quorum, making meeting in small groups permissible. 

In a statement released Friday, the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists criticized the process as being designed to skirt the state’s open meeting law.

“The moment the Regents named Kaler the lone finalist it became evident the university had choreographed a delicate dance to keep a significant amount of information secret from the public,” the statement read. 

The University could be in violation of the open meetings law if the meetings were held with the specific intent to “forge a majority” and circumvent the law, said Laurie Beyer-Kropuenske, director of the state Information Policy Analysis Division.

Any challenge of the legality of the University’s search process would have to come through the courts, she said.

The Information Policy Analysis Division provides advisory opinions on potential open meeting laws violations, but does not have enforcement power, she said. No complaints against the University regarding the presidential search have been filed with the office, Beyer-Kropuenske said.

A number of media organizations, including the Minnesota Daily, sued the University in 2002 following the surprise appointment of current President Bob Bruininks.

The Board was presented with three finalists after a search process, but chose not to name them and instead hired Bruininks, who was then the interim president but was not a finalist.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled against the University in 2004 and the names of the three finalists were released publicly.