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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
Review: “The Watchers”
Published June 13, 2024

Mergendahl: Ettinger’s Hormel ties to FAARM, UMN raise questions

Even in the absence of a direct conflict of interest, the links between Hormel and the University should raise concern.
Image by Photo by Gabrielle Erenstein
A baby cow outside the Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research building on St. Paul campus, June 20, 2023.

When University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel announced her departure this past spring, a flurry of speculation arose as to who would fill the role until a permanent replacement could be found. Senior Vice President Myron Frans? One of the more ambitious system chancellors? Controversial outgoing Board of Regents chair Ken Powell

Optimism about the direction of the university came tempered with bitter cynicism. While Gabel had seen her share of criticism, there seemed to be even less appetite for someone associated with her misdeeds who also lacked her redeeming qualities.

This lack of association with recent scandals offers perhaps the most charitable explanation for why the regents opted to pick a candidate with a near-total lack of experience in higher education over the aforementioned Frans or Crookston Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause. 

Interim president Jeffrey Ettinger’s experience in higher education prior to June 10, when his employment contract began, consisted of just a handful of classes taught as an adjunct faculty member. His cover letter freely admitted his only real ties to the academic world were connections to the University through his work as CEO of Hormel Foods, then as chair of the Hormel Foundation.

Regardless of the extent to which one buys into the idea that corporatization of higher education is a problem, Ettinger’s time at Hormel was punctuated by what should be examples of clear misconduct, even for defenders of a free-market model. Examples include suspected price fixing, USDA investigations for animal cruelty and labor and safety violations — including the breakout of a neurological disorder among employees of a subsidiary company.

These issues were neatly summarized by the Daily Beast in 2022, when Ettinger was seeking the Democratic nomination for Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District. The fact that these matters are on the public record, yet were not sufficient to dissuade his appointment, speaks to his ability to dodge bad press — perhaps the most valuable attribute the interim president of an embattled public university can have in the eyes of the current board.

Ettinger’s ties through the Hormel Foundation to the University’s Future of Advanced Agricultural Research in Minnesota (FAARM) Project are arguably even more concerning. 

Announced in February 2022, the FAARM project was billed as a “visionary agricultural research complex” to be established on tracts of Mower County farmland near Austin — and Hormel headquarters — to the tune of $220 million. 

The University’s initial release also announced a “cornerstone commitment,” from the Hormel Foundation, of $60 million, complete with a chipper quote from none other than Ettinger himself. 

Moreover, Ettinger’s involvement in the project has gone back a while. His cover letter touts his collaboration with both Gabel and her predecessor, Eric Kaler, who retired as president in 2019.

Does Ettinger’s prior involvement with FAARM constitute a conflict of interest?

The Board has been desperate to avoid any perception of this, grafting additional language into Ettinger’s conflict of interest plan to establish a strong firewall between the interim president and any FAARM-related decisions and activities (with the notable exception of lobbying for state funding). 

It makes sense.

Board Chair Janie Mayeron is a retired magistrate judge and a skilled lawyer with an interest in using strong language to protect University interests. She is up for reelection in two years and, considering the ignominious rejection of her predecessor Powell over his support for Gabel’s Securian arrangement, knows that her reputation is at stake. The rest of the Board faces similar pressures. It is realistic to assume that they will keep Ettinger in line for their own sake.

Even without the presence of an overt conflict, however, major questions remain over Hormel’s influence over FAARM.

“There are risks with bringing in the corporate money for sure,” said Richard Painter, a law professor at the University and former White House ethics advisor. “This is a project that I might very well want to take a really good look at, to make sure that we are meeting the ethical standards, protecting our research independence.” 

It should be noted Painter previously lost to Ettinger in the DFL primary for Minnesota’s first congressional district, and began our conversation by noting his respect for his former political opponent and his hopes that someone from a corporate background would be able to cut red tape at the University. He has also been associated with other notable critics of Gabel, including former regents Darrin Rosha and Michael Hsu and former GOP governor Arne Carlson.

“There’s no reason to put [FAARM] in Austin, Minnesota other than Hormel, and, you know, I think Hormel has a better outlook on education than the Koch brothers,” said Jerry Cohen, a horticultural science professor. “But what they’re doing is very similar to what the Koch brothers did with economics departments, like at George Mason University … where they basically drove the discussion in the academic direction by using corporate money to influence educational activity.”

This does not mean that Ettinger’s service as interim president will automatically hand over the keys to the University’s research enterprise to a large corporation with a financial stake in FAARM and other projects. Yet, it says a lot about the Board’s current stance that they would rather take someone whose prior interest in that research has been limited to ensuring it benefits the corporation he is associated with, instead of seeking out a candidate who has experience balancing the needs of students, faculty and the state of Minnesota at large.

“Administrators can’t predict the future because scientists create the future,” Cohen said. “You can’t have a forward-looking activity without consulting with those people who are creating the future.”

Correction: This article initially misstated the title of Jerry Cohen. He is a horticultural science professor.

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