The public’s obstacle

Regents skirted Open Meeting Law in choosing one presidential candidate.

Justin Horwath

 

The Board of RegentsâÄô decision to name only one finalist to succeed Bob Bruininks as president of the University of Minnesota left a lot of journalism-nerd types, myself included, huffing that the 12-member body had dodged MinnesotaâÄôs Open Meeting Law.

Still laboring through the two-hour production âÄî by most accounts, regents meetings are nothing but fronts of unity put on by the board âÄî my phone lit up with text messages full of ire, much of which about Regent David Larson for this comment:

âÄúI believe the Open Meeting Law has made this more difficult,âÄù Larson said of the presidential search process. He referred to the law, which stipulates regents must interview presidential finalists in public meetings if they meet with more than three members, as an âÄúobstacle.âÄù

The Open Meeting Law certainly was a costly obstacle for University, having eventually lost a Minnesota Supreme Court decision for violating it in the 2002 presidential search process. But this time, by naming only one finalist for the public interview phase, the regents got around the court case the Minnesota Daily and other media outlets brought against it. Now the Stony Brook University provost Eric Kaler will be the only candidate students, faculty and staff of this public University âÄî along with the taxpayers who fund it âÄî will get to screen. We might never know who the presidential search committee recommended to the Board of Regents, which has the final say in choosing the president. Kaler may not be it if Regents donâÄôt think he passes muster.

Jane Kirtley, a media law professor at the University, said that while sheâÄôs not making any accusations of impropriety by the board, an absence of public scrutiny leaves open the question of whether the process worked the way the law intended.

âÄúIf youâÄôre going to be president of a state university, you have to get used to public scrutiny,âÄù she said. âÄúAnd if at this early stage, the candidates are not prepared for that, I think it raises a question of how theyâÄôre going to serve in office.âÄù

Kirtley reasons that the way public university presidents are hired (avoiding the glare of the public) becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when secrecy is the norm. I share her sentiment.

Candidates from the private sector, Kirtley also mentioned, might be more averse to public oversight.

Regent Larson is an executive vice president of Cargill, Inc. When I called him at his house Saturday afternoon to clarify his Friday comment, he asked me whether IâÄôd want my name in a public recruiting pool from a competing organization. ThatâÄôs the argument many universities make âÄî that they cannot find the very best candidates because they bow out for fear of harming their reputations if theyâÄôre not chosen âÄî and I told him itâÄôs a reasonable one.

âÄúAs a general statement, you know, weâÄôre an autonomous body. But the Supreme Court ruled against us, in spite of the fact that the University was formed before the state was,âÄù Larson said. âÄúAnd weâÄôre an autonomous body, and therefore, if more than three regents talk to any particular candidate it becomes public, which makes it extremely difficult to recruit people who are currently holding substantial positions.âÄù

ThatâÄôs the we-were-here-first argument the University made unsuccessfully in court. I then asked Larson if he thinks the public interviews are important and why.

âÄúTo me, I think the reason theyâÄôre important because first of all, thatâÄôs the law and we have to abide by that and we intend to abide by that,âÄù he replied. “And secondly, being that it is the law, and we also do have a shared governance system within the University, I think itâÄôs important that professors and students and the public in general, for that matter, gets a chance to get to know these people.âÄù

ThatâÄôs how the system works, he explained, positing that if this were a private institution, âÄúit probably wouldnâÄôt be like that.âÄù

âÄúIâÄôm guessing âÄî IâÄôm not guessing, I know âÄî that if we were a private institution, the regents would be making the decisions and then giving the public and other people an opportunity, other, you know, stakeholders, constituents if you will, the opportunity to get to know this person,âÄù he said.

The UniversityâÄôs most powerful stakeholders have had a say in the search process. Inside the $45-million McNamara Alumni Center âÄî built thanks to the generosity of the University of Minnesota Gateway Corp., a conglomerate of the nonprofit University fundraising entities that now reside in the astonishingly angular complex âÄî chairwoman of the search committee, Regent Patricia Simmons, said they were âÄúblessed with input.âÄù

âÄúWe had wonderful help and input by members of the agriculture community in Minnesota âÄî both leaders in production agriculture and agri-business leaders,âÄù she said at FridayâÄôs meeting. âÄúAlumni and supporters of the University were forthright with sharing with us their ideas, their thoughts and their passion. And one of the very helpful things we were able to capitalize on is input from CEOs, leaders in the financial sector and the business community around Minnesota.âÄù

Regents made laudatory speeches about candidate âÄúC.âÄù Chairman Clyde Allen, who earlier had said that the law âÄúrequiredâÄù the regents to respect the candidatesâÄô privacy, submitted the motion to invite âÄúCâÄù âÄî Kaler âÄî to campus. As they almost always do when motions come to a vote, the regents bellowed a resounding âÄúAye!âÄù

âÄúMost of their debate goes on behind closed doors because they donâÄôt want to tarnish the reputation of the University by having any kind of diversity of opinion. And they donâÄôt want to appear to undercut the president,âÄù DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas, who has chaired the Higher Education Committee, said of the regents.

Imagine reputations more valuable than transparency and public knowledge of our state institutions.

Justin Horwath, the Minnesota Daily editorials and opinions editor, welcomes comments at [email protected].