Search process for president is crucial

Now that the University is no longer preoccupied with the annual chores of fighting for state funding and creating a budget, it’s time to begin choosing a new University president.Former Minnesota governor and regent John Pillsbury once said that many men were qualified to be President of the United States, but very few were qualified to be president of a state university. This is still true, except today those positions aren’t only for men.
Regents have held several forums around the state for citizens to weigh in on the most important qualities in a president. Presumably, these forums will be miraculously summed up by a consulting firm and fine-tuned by the regents. Then, according to Regents Chairman Thomas Reagan, the board will relinquish power to an advisory committee that will select a small number of finalists. The make-up of the advisory committee needs to be crafted carefully so the interests of students and faculty are protected. Gov. Arne Carlson has made it clear he wants state government represented in the selection process because the University relies, to a large degree, on state funding. Reagan has announced he would like to include input from business and labor representatives as well. Taking statewide considerations into account is a good start, but if the regents select a president who attempts to please everyone, they will hire nothing more than a wishy-washy figurehead who doesn’t get anything done.
Contrary to what Carlson and Reagan believe, the presidential selection process should have considerable autonomy from the influence of political, business and labor interests. Those groups already influence the University because the Legislature traditionally appoints labor and business representatives to the Board of Regents. Let’s not forget, the president of the University is a servant for the school’s customers — the students — and is boss of the faculty. Thus, representation during the selection process should be heaviest for students and faculty.
Public higher education in general, and the University specifically, must deal with cuts in state and federal funds. The University also faces instability with vice presidents, deans and faculty leaving for greener pastures. On top of that, many students feel isolated by a bureaucratic and impersonal system. We need leadership that inspires hope and direction. We need someone like the University’s fifth president, Lotus B. Coffman.
Coffman, who served as president from 1920-1938, in many ways built the modern University. He created General College, University College and a program for adult education. Buildings on campus and student enrollment multiplied. Coffman’s record was one of administrative force, executive ability and scholastic ingenuity. We might not agree with every decision he made, but Coffman’s leadership qualities are impressive.
Our next president must have the character to challenge emptiness and despair. We need someone with the visionary qualities that this University must espouse; someone young enough to have a stake in the future of the institution; someone strong enough to persuade us to do the right thing even if it is against our own self-interests. We need a leader.