U should conduct business in light of day

The Minnesota Supreme Court is considering whether the University can make important decisions hidden from the public, a lawsuit resulting from sealed Board of Regents meetings related to hiring University President Bob Bruininks in May 2003.

The key issue will be whether the University can exempt itself from Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law and Data Practices Act. While the University might have valid interests to protect, the public value overcomes those interests. The University should not be able to disregard state law in this area.

The University Charter created and governed the University from 1851 to 1857, when Minnesota adopted its constitution. Article 13 of the Minnesota Constitution vested control of the University in the Board of Regents. This is where the University’s autonomy comes from. That autonomy is not, however, absolute; the University is not “an independent province or beyond the lawmaking power of the Legislature,” according to a 1928 Minnesota Supreme Court decision.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has refused to set a bright-line rule as to when the University’s autonomy will prevail over state laws. They have, however, set guiding principles in the limited existing case law. One of these, set forth in Regents of the University of Minnesota v. Lord, would seem applicable in this context: The state cannot intrude on “the management and control of the University.” So is sealing certain meetings central to the control and management of the University?

Making the identities of University presidential candidates public does not intrude upon the University’s right to manage itself. Neither the Data Practices Act nor the Open Meeting Law interferes with the regents’ decision; they can still pick whomever they choose to lead the University. The public, however, has the right to know whom the regents consider, both to voice their opinions during the process and to oversee the regents’ conduct.