Next U president critical choice for state

The University Board of Regents must soon select a new president to succeed University President Nils Hasselmo. The board’s choice should be of interest not only to those inside the University’s ivy-covered halls, but to all Minnesotans.
Why? When we look for explanations for the sustained good health and prosperity of Minnesota and the Twin Cities, we find the University near the top of the list. It has contributed to technology transfer and to advances in such key industries as medical technology. Its superb reputation has served as a magnet that attracts some of the nation’s (and the world’s) most talented students and faculty, whose presence has contributed to the region’s climate of innovation and excellence.
All of us — citizens, businesses, the Legislature and the regents — should be concerned about the University’s ability to attract a top-flight field of applicants for the presidency. To attract these candidates, the regents must be able to describe clearly their strategic direction for the University — the administrative results the new president will be expected to produce. The regents must also show they are prepared to give the new president a clear mandate to do the job they have described.
At present, there is neither a clear strategy nor a compelling mandate to offer an incoming president. Developing these should be the board’s most important job and it shouldn’t be overshadowed by the mechanics or politics of the selection process. Key issues should include:
Excellence. Is the board willing to make the excellence of the University its top priority? If so, what is its principal strategy to achieve it? What trade-offs would the board consider acceptable in pursuit of excellence?
Urban regions enjoying strong economic growth all have research universities that rank in the top 10 to 12 nationally in the core arts and sciences. Against this background the declining reputation of the University is worrisome.
The University has five programs that are among the 10 best nationally and another 10 programs ranked in the top 20. But comparisons generally show the University’s overall reputation has declined steadily since the earliest ranking in 1925. And while the University’s strongest departments receive applications from top graduates all over the world, other departments draw 80 percent of graduate applicants from the Twin Cities.
The University of Minnesota has attempted to focus on excellence for more than a decade with mild success. Admission standards have been raised. State leaders should continue to differentiate the missions of our postsecondary systems, focusing our flagship University on top-quality research and education of the most talented students.
Another issue to consider is the University as an engine of economic growth. What role should the University play in improving the long-term competitiveness of the state and the region’s industries?
The University was instrumental in the development of new technologies, several of which later developed into world-class Twin Cities enterprises, such as 3M and Medtronic. Across the globe, highly competitive industries tend to cluster together — fiber optics in Dallas and Austin, automobiles in Detroit, software design in Silicon Valley. Part of the synergy of these leading industry clusters is explained by the presence of one or more top research universities actively working in those industries — a role the University must vigorously pursue.
Access is another area to examine. What should be the University’s role in improving access to higher education for low-income people and people of color?
In the new economy, lack of postsecondary education is a one-way ticket to second-class economic status. Minnesota must take steps to improve access for low-income people and people of color. And like it or not, the postsecondary systems can expect to continue some remedial education.
The unfortunate flap over General College indicated the board’s lack of agreement about what the University’s responsibilities should be. The University should concentrate on removing the barriers facing the most talented minority and low-income students. The college should be a secondary player to other parts of the postsecondary system in providing remedial education for average students, whether white or minority.
A final issue to consider is tax support. How will the University make a case for increased taxpayer support?
Higher education’s share of the state budget is shrinking: It is being elbowed out by spending on corrections, nursing homes and other priorities. The state’s higher education institutions, including the University, will have to convince citizens and lawmakers that higher education is worth additional support.
The University will likely have a tough go of it. The series of “scandals du jour,” has left the University’s reputation on Main Street a little tattered. But that may be the least of the board’s challenges. A greater challenge will be persuading legislators and voters — long accustomed to viewing enrollment in the University as an entitlement of citizenship — why they should increase their support for a more selective University. We think the case can be made and won. Before the new president is sent to do so, however, he or she should be assured of the board’s mandate to deliver on the University’s promises.
Lyle Wray is the executive director of the Citizens League. This editorial appeared in the July 23 issue of the Minnesota Journal, a publication of the Citizens League.