Openness key in presidenital search process

The unveiling of a blue ribbon search committee to help the Board of Regents select a new president was overshadowed by the shot that rang out about a month earlier in University President Nils Hasselmo’s office. The presentation of the 11-person body of august men and a few women was a definite nonevent. The composition of the committee was so bland that, except for the noticeable sparsity of women and minorities, it would pale in newsworthiness to an announcement that a single day had passed in which a University football player had not been accused of some crime.The committee consists of a don’t-rock-the-boat crowd that was formerly known as the “establishment” and, for lack of a better term, can probably be termed the “establishment” today. If the shoe fits, why not kick it around a bit?The complexion of the panel, noticeably white, is hardly as significant as the process the regents intend to follow in choosing Hasselmo’s successor.
If history is any guide, the presidential search process is likely to run into several legal glitches. One gaffe surfaced a couple decades ago when C. Peter McGrath was chosen to lead the University. A virtual unknown from a small New York school, he was selected amid a flare-up of anti-Semitism. A leading candidate was axed when one of the regents raised the specter of the candidate’s Judaism as an impediment to dealing with the Legislature.
More than a decade later, after McGrath’s departure, another unlikely candidate took over the University presidency. Kenneth Keller, who was serving as acting president, disclaimed any interest in the position, until he decided that he wanted the position after all and was handed it on a silver platter.
It turned out that he really wanted the silver platter for his kitchen decor. The Daily achieved access to confidential documents through the Government Data Practices Act. The resulting cascade of public revelations about a large expenditure of money to redecorate the president’s University-provided home at Eastcliff led to the hasty and unfortunate demise of Keller’s presidency.
Hasselmo’s selection as Keller’s successor followed a brief, sour period of the acting presidency of Richard Sauer. The process was again marked by controversy and the ubiquity of contemporary times: a lawsuit. The Daily sued the University, seeking open meetings of an advisory committee that the regents had craftily created to screen candidates.
The Daily lost the battle, but won the war. The lawsuit upheld the University’s position that the Open Meeting Law did not apply to the committee because it did not have “final decision-making authority.” But the litigation opened up the process by forcing the University to pledge more accessibility, a promise that provided the public with more insight into how the University president was selected. For the first time in modern history, there were multiple finalists and a contested selection process in which Hasselmo defeated a law school dean, Robert Stein, who now heads the American Bar Association.
The media’s insatiable appetite to know what is transpiring in the selection process, coupled with the public’s right to know, has made choosing the University president more complex. It is hoped that the “bland ribbon” committee assisting the regents will take to heart the past assurances of openness, recognizing that sunshine is the best disinfectant for the ills that have troubled the institution in previous selection processes.
Openness ought to dominate the selection process because it is bound to be a recurring issue in the next administration. The new University president will enter a troubled institution, with turmoil including: tenure issues with faculty, reform in the medical complex, and changes as the University enters the 21st century. He (or she) may feel like a successor to Captain Bligh dealing with a bevy of Fletcher Christians.
It was sure a lot easier to select a University president when the candidates wore mutton chops and knew that buildings would be christened in their name after their reign.
Marshall H. Tanick is a Minneapolis attorney who has represented the Daily.