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Letter to the Editor: Was McMillan the exception to the rule?

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents approved former Regent David McMillan as UMD’s interim chancellor. Generally, this type of appointment is not allowed in the public service sector.
Image by Morgan La Casse

This letter to the editor was written in response to a July 15 Minnesota Daily article.

The July meeting of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents featured attacks of all sorts, including personal accusations that individual regents were seeking to destroy the University. At the end of the day, Regent emeritus McMillan was appointed interim chancellor of UMD. With all the issues swirling, it is hard for students and University community members to keep things straight. That’s why I am disappointed that we didn’t get a clear answer to a simple question: why is this case different?

It is not (or was not) controversial that you must be careful when hiring or working with former colleagues. That’s why the Obama Administration required former staffers to wait a certain amount of time before taking advocacy jobs lobbying their former colleagues. It’s why judges recuse themselves when they have a relationship to a party before them even if the relationship is minor. Even if the judge or former west-winger has nothing but the best of intentions (which they almost always do!), there is the chance that old friends will unconsciously favor one another. Human cognition is complicated and flawed, so we devise best practices to guard against unconscious bias in the legal, DEI, and yes, university governance, spaces.

I feel unqualified to comment on whether McMillan is the most qualified candidate for the post. I certainly do not think there was any conspiracy between him and any senior University leadership. But the majority of regents lost the plot today. They were so eager to dispute the existence of any impropriety between McMillan and University leaders that they forgot who was at most risk of bias—themselves. Everyone on the board, as far as I know, really likes McMillan. I sure do, from the couple of times I met him. But that is exactly why he should not have been put forward for the post. As a general rule, accepting a role on the board of a publicly accountable instruction means you can’t be hired by that board until everyone you served with has rotated off. That’s just the price of public service.

Maybe this case was the exception to the rule. Maybe there was truly no other option. But the majority didn’t make that argument today. By relying on raw numbers rather than persuasion, they did the University community no favors. They had the votes, but they didn’t make the case.

This letter was submitted by Isaiah W. Ogren, a University alum who graduated in 2020 and is a former ranking student senator. 

This letter has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

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