State flexes muscle in University affairs

Joel Sawyer

Michael O’Keefe has some very strong opinions about the future of the University.
O’Keefe, 56, the executive vice president of the McKnight Foundation, was named the Board of Regent’s newest member Monday by Gov. Arne Carlson. O’Keefe will begin his duties immediately. He replaces Jean Keffeler, who resigned two weeks ago.
“We need to set a vision for the future for this institution, and we need to invest in that future if we are to retain the high quality of life the state has enjoyed,” O’Keefe said.
That vision starts at the top, he said, with the regents’ selection of an outstanding president to lead the University into the next century.
The president selection is the most important made by any board, O’Keefe said, “because it is the president who has to lead and shape the direction of any institution.”
He said it was premature to comment on the three candidates to succeed University President Nils Hasselmo who’s names were publicly revealed Friday.
But O’Keefe did say that whoever is chosen must be qualified in several critical ways. The next president must be an intellectual leader, highly respected by peers and among the top academics in the world, he said. The potential president must also have the management skills needed to lead a large university and be able to lobby the support of politicians and community leaders.
Carlson agreed.
“We must hire the most qualified person to be president,” he said. “Not just someone who may be qualified, but the person who is qualified.”
Carlson said O’Keefe has the experience necessary to make tough decisions.
“There are few individuals in the Minnesota community that have the background and strength and leadership abilities that are necessary (for the job) at this time,” Carlson said.
The University is mired in a struggle over tenure reform and financial problems at its ailing Academic Health Center. These challenges are coupled with Hasselmo’s University 2000 plan, which would radically restructure the school to make it more competitive and efficient.
Prior to joining the McKnight Foundation in 1989, O’Keefe was the president of the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education. O’Keefe was the associate vice president of academic affairs from 1973 to 1977 at the University of Illinois.
He has also served as the vice president for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and was the deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in President Carter’s administration.
At the University, O’Keefe serves on the President’s Task Force on Future Financing of the University and the Advisory Committee for the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
O’Keefe said he could not comment on a specific vision for the University’s future, but did say how he thought the school could get there.
“The final portrait of the University is a combination of a deliberate planning, strategizing and prioritizing process, and a combination of accident and happenstance,” he said.
Part of that deliberate planning, O’Keefe said, should be the creation of a highly selective University with higher admissions standards, top-notch students and a commitment to academic programs that make the school strong.
O’Keefe said restricting access to students might not be popular, but it may be necessary to increase the quality of the University.
“To stand up and say we’ve got to tighten, we’ve got to restrict that (access) is politically very difficult,” he said.
It is difficult, but possible because of schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system that offer alternatives to the University, O’Keefe said.
Those schools “offer very low-cost public higher education of very high quality,” he said.
“We’re at a point now where we can, in fact, focus the University and make it more selective at the undergraduate level and strengthen, in effect, the quality of academic programs across the board,” he said.
In a move that might be seen as radical by some, O’Keefe said one of his other top priorities as a regent will be to redefine the role of the Board of Regents at the University.
“I believe that over the last few years the regents have gotten themselves tangled in an engagement on policy on a level that I don’t think should be or could be sustained by a governing body,” he said.
He cited the current tenure battle as an example of the board involving itself inappropriately with University policy.
“Tenure is a red herring,” O’Keefe said. “It’s less important an issue than the attention it’s been given in the past however many months it’s been going on.
“The real issue here is what will this institution become in the next century, how are we going to get it there, what will it cost, and do the people of Minnesota want to support it or not?” he said.
Once the regents’ primary goal of hiring an outstanding president is accomplished, O’Keefe said that he would like the board to help the new president define and clarify a vision of the University’s future. At that point, he added, he would like the regents to pass the bulk of University decision-making to the new administration.
The regents’ primary purpose after that, he said, would be to work with faculty members and students to help develop consensus around the state to support that vision.
“Unless we the people of the state of Minnesota, unless the leadership of the state of Minnesota — the governor, the lieutenant governor, our legislature — support that vision, understand it and see its importance, we will not have the resources to in fact realize that vision,” O’Keefe said.
At a minimum, O’Keefe will serve as a regent through the 1998 legislative session. His term could be extended by the Legislature to fill the remainder of Keffeler’s six-year term, which would have ended in 2001.