U looks back on

Andrew Tellijohn

Kenneth Keller admitted to making some grievous mistakes as University president. But legislators and administrators also credit him with helping make giant strides for the school.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of Keller’s resignation as president. He was forced to quit the post, which he held from 1985 to 1988, after local media uncovered mismanagement of funds for the renovation of Eastcliff, the presidential mansion.
Keller doesn’t talk about his last days as president. In declining to be interviewed for this story he said it wouldn’t do him any good to look back.
State and University officials say he made mistakes, but also became a victim of circumstance and a symbol for difficult times at the University.
In an era when University funding was decreasing and program cuts were increasing, it was the wrong time to get caught renovating the president’s mansion to the tune of $1.7 million.
The University’s Board of Regents had only allocated $400,000 for the renovations.
When word leaked out in January 1998 that renovations actually cost three times that year’s estimated value of the mansion, Keller found himself on the hotseat.
When it later became known that he also renovated his office in Morrill Hall at a cost of $200,000, that seat started blazing.
Legislative Auditor James Nobles uncovered a secret reserve fund during a state investigation. The account, which Keller’s opponents called a “slush fund,” contained as much as $70 million. The discovery of that financial mismanagement made the flames too much to bear.
As Gov. Arne Carlson, then state auditor put it, “From a historical perspective, the days of Ken Keller have ended.”
“He has become the story, not the University of Minnesota.”
Three weeks later, Keller resigned under pressure from then Gov. Rudy Perpich, the state Legislature and regents.
But many administrators and legislators agree the mistakes he made often overshadow positive contributions he made to the University.
Nearly everyone involved will remember Keller for those final months, when scandal rocked the pages of all the state’s newspapers. But the University survived and today, 10 years later, is using programs and ideas he initiated.
Destined for failure
Some people say Keller didn’t stand a chance to begin with.
Former Regent Chair David Lebedoff said Keller could have been remembered as one of the greatest University presidents ever. But the deck was stacked against him from the start.
Keller was named interim President when C. Peter Magrath resigned suddenly in 1984.
Because of a raging battle between people who wanted to increase accessibility and those who wanted to cut programs and admissions to focus on the University’s strengths, some regents distrusted Keller from the start, Lebedoff said.
But Rep. Michael Jaros, DFL-Duluth, and Sen. Gary Laidig, R-Stillwater, said Keller brought much of the heat upon himself. Early in the search process, regents passed a resolution declaring no interim president could become a candidate for the permanent seat. Keller declared he had no intention of becoming the school’s leader.
Though about half the regents felt the rule served no purpose, it passed unanimously because nobody wanted to appear biased at the time, Lebedoff said.
But when funding was tight and Gov. Perpich told the University their allotment depended on presenting a plan to focus on its strengths and cut some of the “excess fat,” Keller quickly developed “Commitment to Focus.” The plan proposed cutting and reallocating various programs to better focus on the University’s strengths.
As the regents were searching for a permanent candidate, Keller’s plan was gaining popularity with the state. Throughout the country, people were also asking why the school would search for someone else to implement Keller’s plan.
Keller became the obvious choice. By a 9-3 vote, regents overturned their previous resolution. In another vote, the board named Keller president.
But the actual vote for Keller was not unanimous. Two regents voted against him and his support in the Legislature was tepid as well.
Laidig said Keller lost a lot of support by changing his mind about being a candidate for the permanent position.
Instead of simply becoming a candidate for the spot, Keller should have resigned from the interim position, Laidig said.

Keller a fall guy? Tumultuous years at the U
Keller admitted to and apologized for making mistakes during his term.
With statewide funding being slashed and burned, the extravagant spending on Eastcliff was questioned.
In addition, millions of unreported dollars were discovered in the secret fund. The renovations to Keller’s office were done in four chunks, each under $50,000, which some officials decided made Board of Regents approval unnecessary.
Adding to the tension during Keller’s tenure was public scrutiny at the University stemming from sexual assault allegations against three members of the men’s basketball team. The public wanted someone to blame. That included defense attorneys who felt Keller prejudged the defendants, who were ultimately acquitted.
During the tense year and a half that followed, Keller fought losing battles with the Legislature and governor over funding issues. When the Eastcliff debacle surfaced, even those who long-supported Keller began leaning towards his removal.
“That was like putting a match to the tinder,” Lebedoff said. “The house became a symbol of elitism.”
And Keller’s flamboyant disposition turned some people off, Jaros said.
“He is a bright person but he’s got some of that east coast pride that didn’t jive too well with Minnesota humble and nice’ people,” Jaros said. “So he got into trouble and could no longer serve.”

Yudof and Hasselmo benefit from Keller’s vision
Current president Mark Yudof has legislators excited about his renovation ideas. A record-setting budget proposal has been well-received by the Legislature.
Hasselmo’s years at the helm were known for his University 2000 plan, a plan similar to Keller’s theories.
Both of Keller’s successors have been moderately to very successful at implementing their plans and gaining legislative support.
Laidig said Yudof’s $249 million budget request is likely to pass completely or nearly intact. But the anchor for each was Keller’s “Commitment to Focus.”
“Commitment to Focus’ was a very important idea,” Hasselmo said. “My administration tried to follow up on some of those initiatives.”
Lebedoff said the school’s current success stems from his vision.
“I think the University under Yudof is about to enter its brightest period,” he said. “But a lot of the groundwork was laid by Keller.”
Yudof refused to comment for this article. But Hasselmo said Keller’s contributions to the school far outweigh the mistakes he made.
After taking office, Hasselmo kept the bulk of “Commitment to Focus,” and renamed it “Access to Excellence.” The idea was a precursor to Hasselmo’s U2000, which pushed for focus on key programs — virtually identical to Keller’s plan.
In April 1985, Keller also initiated a $300 million fund-raising effort that was, at the time, among the most impressive in the nation.
Now the University’s endowment is worth well over $1 billion.
Even those who opposed him at the time credit his ideas.
“No question about it — Keller gets absolute credit for that,” Laidig said. “Keller is a man of vision.”
Aftermath
In the years since the Eastcliff scandal, regents made several changes. Two bodies, The Technical Advisory Committee and Friends of Eastcliff, were created to take oversight for the house out of the president’s hands.
The mansion has twice undergone renovation since the 1988 refurbishing that became Keller’s downfall, most recently last summer before Yudof moved in.
Two years following his resignation, Keller resumed teaching at the University. He taught for a number of years in the chemical engineering department. While he has no plans of again becoming a public figure, he has complimented the current leadership’s direction and continued playing a role in its success.
He now teaches science and technology policy in the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
He doesn’t like to revisit those days of old.
But in his resignation speech he emphasized his love for the University by stepping aside when the distraction of the investigation would prevent him from furthering the school.
John Brandl, interim dean of the Humphrey Institute, said people see that and respect him in spite of the past.
“It shows there are a lot of people who admire and respect him,” he said. “He put the past behind him and doesn’t dwell on it.”
Officials from then and now feel he hasn’t been given his due.
“Keller’s role was an important one and a great one and an enduring one for the University and for the state,” Lebedoff said.
In the meantime, the University as an institution has recovered. Laidig said Keller was the firestorm — the visionary with a lot of ideas but not much support. Hasselmo was a caretaker, someone to bridge the opening gap, Laidig said. Now, under Yudof, the school is about to see results.
“There was commitment to focus,” Laidig said. “(Yudof) is focus.”

— Staff Librarian Christian Trejbal contributed to this report