Arne Carlson: The anatomy of a scandal

The concern is not that problems and controversies occur. That is the norm of human existence. Rather, the test is how leadership handles each crisis.

Arne Carlson

Throughout our history, we have assigned our colleges and universities a special place in our expectations of the American Dream. It was actually not until the close of World War II with the passage of the GI bill that the doors of our academic institutions would be truly open to all.

With that elevated status in our society also comes the responsibility to live up to the most exacting standards of excellence in all endeavors.

Tragically, that has not been the case in recent years at the University of Minnesota. The concern is not that problems and controversies occur. That is the norm of human existence. Rather, the test is how leadership handles each crisis. For instance, when President Eric Kaler assumed the reins in July 2011, he inherited an ongoing scandal involving the gross misuse of patients for commercial testing of drugs. One such patient died. However, instead of investigating for the truth and seeking reform, he went along with the coverup.

After considerable news coverage and public controversy, two professional reports were published in 2015 highly critical of the administration’s management. The Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs leveled harsh criticisms in an external review that included poor training of researchers, inadequate scientific review of research projects and an intimidating environment described as a “culture of fear.”

Several weeks later, the Minnesota Legislative Auditor confirmed those findings, also citing “numerous conflicts of interest” and “potentially coercive” recruitment practices when searching for patients to take these experimental drugs.

The same administrative inclination toward coverup occurred again when a celebrated faculty member was arrested on December 26, 2018 for “domestic assault by strangulation” and, in the month prior, was in court for financially deceiving his ex-wife in a divorce settlement.

Reports now emerging indicate that the University may have begun an investigation into the professor’s misappropriation of some $30,000 in University funds as early as 2017. However, neither the Board of Regents or the Hennepin County Attorney appeared to be informed, although the theft involved a felony. Further, Minnesota Statutes 609.456 clearly state that “evidence of theft, embezzle or unlawful use of public funds” must be reported to the Legislative Auditor. That also did not take place. Clearly, the goal was to keep the matter as quiet as possible.

In July 2019, President Kaler retired and the Presidency was assumed by Joan Gabel, an attorney by training. That same month, KSTP TV broadcast their investigatory report on those “unchecked expenses” and Regent Michael Hsu, when interviewed and reacting to hearing of this scandal for the first time, declared that the University had a “culture of noncompliance.” Certainly, considering the recent past, that is not an unreasonable observation. Further, as a public servant, Regent Hsu was obligated to be truthful with the media. Under no circumstance would it be acceptable for him to be a party to improper or illegal attempts to suppress the truth.

However, Board Chairman Kendall Powell and Vice Chair Steven Sviggum had an opposite view. They wrote a blistering letter to Hsu criticizing his lack of judgment and proceeded to work toward his removal from the Board.

Powell and others on the Board decided to employ the use of the highly political Maroon and Gold PAC which presented itself as a lobbying aid for the University although the University refused to give it authorization. They donated more than $8,000, and the PAC received another $10,000 from the recently retired President Kaler who presided over the gross mismanagement of the scandal. And the Maroon and Gold PAC diligently pursued its prime mission — lobbying the Legislature to remove Regent Hsu from the Board. They succeeded.

Meanwhile, Doering pled guilty to domestic assault and, in June 2019, was sentenced to six months at the Hennepin County Workhouse. However, during this time, he was permitted to be on paid leave thereby collecting full salary and benefits. Further, instead of dismissal, he was permitted to resign that November.

According to the prevailing powers at the University, it would appear that the real villain was not the person who brutally attacked several women and stole money but rather the Regent who broke the implied code of silence.

As noted in the letter sent to the Legislative Auditor, standards of ethics and appropriate behavior are far more stringent for students than leaders. Perhaps the Legislative Auditor would suggest that University leadership live by the same rules and expectations they impose on others.

This OpEd essay was submitted by Arne Carlson, who served as the governor of Minnesota from 1991 to 1999.  

This OpEd essay has been lightly edited for style and clarity.