Media suit against U heads to state high court

Molly Moker

The University will appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court today for the first time since 1993 regarding its state of autonomy.

In November 2002, five media outlets – the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune, the Rochester Post-Bulletin, The Minnesota Daily and the Minnesota Joint Media Committee – sued the Board of Regents for withholding the names of the University’s presidential candidates.

Since then, a state district court and the Court of Appeals ruled the University broke state public information laws and must release the candidates’ names.

The University argues its constitutional autonomy and right to preserve candidates’ privacy protect the institution.

When the University was founded in 1851, Minnesota was not a state, and the Board of Regents had power to govern the institution.

When Minnesota became a state seven years later, the state recognized the board’s power and included a provision for it in the state constitution, according to a legal document by Deborah McKnight, a legislative analyst and attorney in the state House.

The provision limits the executive and legislative branch’s direct control on how to run the University, according to the document.

It also protects the University’s academics and research from being influenced by the state, McKnight said.

McKnight said the University’s autonomy is designed so the state cannot infringe on the institution’s independence. However, this does not allow the University to be exempt from public safety, welfare or state policy laws, McKnight said.

“It’s a classic kind of conflict,” McKnight said. “There’s a high value on public information, and it’s important to have open meeting laws. But the University is saying if we can’t keep it quiet we can’t get the best candidates.”

McKnight said finding a balance between the University and the state will be difficult.

“The constitution says the University needs to be managed by the Board of Regents and not the Legislature,” McKnight said. “But the University is not above the law. Where is that line?”

University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said it is important for the University to keep presidential searches confidential to ensure the best candidates.

“The highly qualified candidates that the board wanted to consider for president were not possible unless they were guaranteed a certain amount of confidentiality,” Rotenberg said. “The University needs to make sure the best qualified pool of candidates is considered.”

Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he understands why the University’s autonomy can be beneficial, but that it does not make it exempt from all state laws.

“Occasionally, the Legislature will tell the University what to do,” Sviggum said. “The University is a public institution that uses public funds, so their open meeting laws shouldn’t be any different than that of the rest of the state.”

John Borger, the Star Tribune attorney who will argue for the media outlets in the appeal, said although the University has constitutional autonomy, it is not excused from following public policy and Minnesota statutes.

“The University is a public institution, acts for the public and should grant the public access to its proceeding,” he said.

Mark Anfinson, attorney for The Minnesota Daily, said the University’s autonomy takes needed authority from the Legislature.

He said the process of selecting a president is not a core value the University needs to protect under its autonomy.

“In a democracy, the legislature is given a lot of final say on how we run our country, and that’s the way it should be,” he said.