New president must make long-term commitment

In 1869, Maj. John Wesley Powell did what many said was impossible. He navigated the dangerously churning rapids of the Colorado River through its most inhospitable terrain – the Grand Canyon. In a way, Mark Yudof is like Major Powell. He was forced to navigate the future of the University through turbulent times, strewn with unknowns and the sound of raging waters constantly reverberating amongst the canyon walls – namely, his critics in the media. And like Powell, who had lost an arm in the civil war, Yudof was forced to lead the University with only one arm as the other was held behind his back in wrestling fashion by Governor Turnbuckle and a state Legislature that cut his budget requests.

But now our captain is leaving and we are faced with the difficult task of finding a new president who can keep up with Yudof’s exemplary ghost – an enigma that will remain long after he has left. And not only keep up, but perhaps with hindsight mend some of the mistakes Yudof made in his five years at the University.

The regents are looking for this someone and have given a preliminary list of three ideal characteristics – visionary, good manager and a person who understands the values of Minnesota. And while these all seem good, there are some traits we’d like our new president to have.

Perhaps the most important is the ability to step into the role of leader and carry forward where Yudof left off. The new president will need to continue the momentum Yudof started, bringing the garden Yudof sowed to fruition. Otherwise, we jeopardize losing the labor of the last five years. Yet at the same time, the new president must meld his own ideas into the progression of the University and mend Yudof’s errors.

However, the president chosen should be no slave to Yudof’s ghost. The president must have new goals and do what Yudof did not – stick around to reap the benefits.

An important and regrettable requirement is one that Thomas Paine might have called a necessary fluency with evil. The president will need to be a savvy politician. It became clear during Yudof’s reign that the position of president was as much about politicking on behalf of the University as it was about providing direction. If the University is to continue to grow, or even maintain its current level, it will need the support and subsequent funding that politicians provide.

However, funding alone will not bring prosperity to the University. The money must be allocated effectively, converting dollars into progression. For this to take place the president must be able to prioritize the needs and goals of the University. Yudof showed us how valuable this trait was. He advanced the University by heavily funding cutting-edge fields such as digital technology and cellular and molecular biology, which brought recognition and private money onto campus. And with the current funding shortages, it is important the new president has a knack for selecting what academic investments earn students and the University the best bang for their buck.

So the incoming president will need to know how to make a budget stretch. The last two tuition hikes were substantial and came in quick succession. Another increase would undermine the University’s goal of making its knowledge accessible to all students because many would be unable to afford it. Financial resourcefulness should be a requirement.

In the athletics department where grade point averages have traditionally been low, student-athletes need to be pushed harder to get a good education, putting their long-term interests over the University’s win-loss record. And in serving the interest of all students, the president must stop the drain on academic funding that has resulted from the athletics budget deficit. Still, after the men’s golf team won the NCAA national championship there are many people who reasonably believe the team shouldn’t be cut. If the president was able to delineate just what it was that sports teams have to measure up to – both academically and financially – it would give coaches, players and fans the ability to make sure these goals were met.

Yudof’s contentious 13-credit minimum plan wasn’t the best solution to improve six-year graduation rates, and a better one needs to be formed. The incoming president needs to have clear ideas and goals on what will help students graduate earlier. Requiring students to take 13 credits makes it more difficult for them to hold down part-time jobs to pay rising tuition costs. Students deserve the best possible solution and not some quick fix whose apparent foundation asserts that students are entirely to blame. The president needs to recognize and address the needed changes in the University’s infrastructure that will expedite student graduation. It is not an easy challenge and might prove a big test of the new president.

Yudof gave us five overall good years, but that might not have been long enough. At a time when university presidents are looking more like CEOs and CEOs more like short-term opportunists, it would be advantageous to have a president committed to long-term growth and who is willing to see it through to the end. This might mean hiring locally. Interim President Robert Bruininks has been at the University for more than 30 years, but he has said he won’t pursue the permanent position. The regents need to continue looking for local leaders. There is certainly no need to start looking elsewhere until the pool of local candidates has been exhausted. If the University acquired someone of Yudof’s caliber who stayed on for at least 10 years, the quality of education and campus life here might truly become one of the 10 best in the nation.

The regents’ task in finding a new president to navigate these waters is not an easy one, and choosing someone who has been along for the ride might prove favorable. Regardless of origin, the new captain of our ship will need all these characteristics to progress the University through future rapids.