Constitutional autonomy, a problematic prospect

Every organization needs to be accountable. Even the Founding Fathers recognized that.

But the University’s administration doesn’t.

With an on-again, off-again strategy stretching across 11 decades, the University has repeatedly tried to strengthen its constitutional autonomy from the state of Minnesota.

The University’s argument is that because its charter is incorporated into the state constitution, it is exempt from all legislation pertaining to the management of the University and its property.

The most recent outgrowths of this strategy include the University’s new gun ban, which flaunts state law, and the regents’ attack on the Minnesota Data Practices Act and the Open Meeting Law. The latter action comes through the regents’ legal defense of the secretive practices used during the University’s presidential hiring process.

While the gun ban might be good policy, if allowed to stand, it will reinforce the University’s autonomous position by strengthening its ability to fend off certain types of legislation.

The University’s attacks on this state’s sunshine laws, if successful, would so protect the University as to elevate it above every other government institution in its ability to restrict the public’s right to know about its inner workings.

An unaccountable University is a frightening prospect. If allowed to keep its presidential hiring process secret, then what more will take place behind closed doors, away from the public’s watchdogs?

Valid arguments support the idea that the regents should have some autonomy from legislative interference in their governing of the University. But to the extent that autonomy puts the University in a proverbial constitutional sanctuary, protected from attempts to hold it accountable, such a position loses value.

No government institution – especially ones receiving billions of dollars and affecting hundreds of thousands of citizens – can escape its duty to remain accountable to the public.

General Counsel Mark Rotenberg continues to push the issue of autonomy and the coming weeks hold key trials for his agenda.

We can only hope Minnesota’s courts will deny those efforts.