Opinion: Put students first for a change

The University of Minnesota has shown itself to be more concerned with the pursuit of self-interest than student interests.

by Arne Carlson

Traditionally, the United States enjoyed the reputation of having the finest system of higher education in the world. The GI bill opened the door to education for millions of returning soldiers, strengthened the finances of our large public universities and launched unprecedented research opportunities. We were blessed with leadership that was truly committed to the well being of others.

The one element that could derail this magnificent success would be the thirst for money and a misguided administration. Tragically, that is precisely what is happening here at the University of Minnesota. 

For the last two decades, the University has been beset with scandals that have the common thread of greed, the pursuit of self-interest and the gross misuse of power. The current David McMillan controversy is the latest example of leadership responsibility being used as an opportunity for self-dealing.

The University had the obligation to institute meaningful reforms around 2014 when the massive corruption of the Markingson drug testing case was exposed by a series of national and state investigations that revealed the gross misuse of power at the University.

Over the past two decades, there have been additional scandals involving money and the misuse of power by those charged with running and protecting our Land Grant University. The real problem that all Minnesotans must face is this culture has been permitted to remain, and even fester, at the expense of all Minnesotans, especially our University students.

Consider the growing issue of student debt and tuition increases. Today, the University has substantially higher costs for tuition and fees than several of the surrounding public universities.

But what is stunning is the administration’s appalling lack of attention to this problem. According to one regent, the Board of Regents spends virtually no time on the issue and when it does, leadership wants to compare Minnesota to the highest-tuition schools in other parts of the country.

Then contrast this lack of attention to student costs and debt loads with all the time and energy expended on raising the president’s pay into the million-dollar plus range and maneuvering McMillan into a chancellorship. 

Ten years ago, Regent Steve Sviggum accepted employment with the Republican Legislative Caucus staff but did not see this as a conflict of interest. The other members of the board disagreed and sought two legal opinions, engaged in extensive debate and voted 11-0 to affirm the conflict of interest. Sviggum subsequently resigned from the Board.

Interestingly, former Regent McMillan led the effort to protect the reputation of the University with minutes from the March 2, 2012 meeting stating, “McMillan expressed that the public image of the University translates to public trust. If there is a potential conflict of interest, that is viewed by the public as an apparent conflict of interest, the board cannot maintain the public trust.”

Now he sees things a bit differently as he moves toward becoming University of Minnesota-Duluth’s (UMD) interim chancellor. Yes, the same person who helped hire President Joan Gabel, voted for the contract that moved her salary to over $1 million and consolidated power under the Board Chair and approved a substantial pay raise to Myron Frans, the co-chair of the UMD chancellor search committee, steadfastly maintains that none of these activities would, in any way, be seen as a conflict of interest. 

Unlike the handling of the Sviggum controversy, the Gabel administration and the board did not seek or disclose a legal opinion or engage in a public dialogue. Where was the independence? 

Finally, only one applicant, McMillan, was interviewed for the interim chancellor post. One of those denied an interview was Interim Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UMD Amy Hietapelto.

Frankly, this obvious manipulation of the selection process is outrageous and must not be tolerated. Hietapelto stands out as an exceptional candidate with an MBA in marketing from Michigan State University and a PhD in organizational studies from the Carlson School of Business. She came to UMD with prior experience as dean of the College of Business and Management at Northeastern Illinois University and served since 2013 as dean of the Labovitz School for Business and Economics at UMD.

Why is it that she was denied an interview while McMillan, a retired power company executive with no background in academic affairs management, was deemed to be the only suitable candidate? This action by Gabel is particularly perplexing when one considers the fact that last year she appointed the vice chancellor as the interim chancellor at the University of Minnesota-Morris. 

One would have to torture the truth to conclude this process was acceptable or reflected any sense of integrity. Where is the honesty, the transparency and the commitment to public purpose?

All of this self-service takes an incredible amount of time and energy and creates an environment where private gain squeezes out the University’s mission of serving the public.

The real problem at the University is not that the president is underpaid, that the board chair lacks power or that there was not a perfectly competent vice chancellor to serve as the interim leader at UMD.  Rather, it is the continuing culture of self-service that dominates the leadership of the University and the failure to do anything about the student debt. 

It is imperative that leaders across Minnesota stand up and demand our flagship university have the finest, most ethical and most public-minded leaders who restore the focus back to where it belongs – maintaining a quality faculty seeking to educate eager students at an affordable price. 

We conclude with this request: everyone, please contact your legislators and plea for public hearings on these matters.


Tom Berkelman and Richard Painter contributed to this essay. 

Arne Carlson is a former Minnesota governor and served as governor from 1991-1999. Tom Berkelman is a former state representative from Duluth. Richard Painter is a University law professor. 

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