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“Challengers” releases in theaters on April 26.
Review: “Challengers”
Published April 13, 2024

Editorial: UMN president search needs transparency, multiple finalists

The Board of Regents started the search for the University of Minnesota’s next president last summer.
Image by Sarah Mai

As the second semester of the 2023-24 school year begins, the search for a new president here at the University of Minnesota seems to progressing beneath radar. Although there have been some vague blurbs on the website created by the Board of Regents, nothing is being disclosed about the process to replace the departed Joan Gabel, who departed in July without warning in the midst of her contract to sign on with a $1 million annual deal to head the University of Pittsburgh. 

The University’s opacity about what is happening in the search for her successor is both consistent with the institution’s dismal past practice and an ominous sign for its future lack of transparency. 

The Board has long followed a practice clothed in secrecy and yielding a single “finalist,” contrary to good public policy — and the law.  

The search for a new President to take over the reins from  Jeff Ettinger, the former Hormel CEO who was tapped by the Board of Regents last summer on an interim basis is being conducted by a suburban Chicago-based search firm, Wittkieffer, at a hefty price tag of $200,000 plus expenses. That probably will end up costing about a quarter million dollars or about one-fourth the annual NIL cost of securing a top-flight quarterback for coach P. J. Fleck’s beleaguered after its yawn-inspiring Motor City Bowl against Bowling Green the day after Christmas. 

That’s a lot of money to end up with a single candidate. 

Regrettable ruse

But the presidential search need not — and ought not — repeat that regrettable ruse of coming up with and disclosing to the University community and the public with a single candidate. The expensive and time-consuming search ought to produce at least multiple finalists for the position. Indeed, the law virtually seemingly demands it despite the institution’s long-standing practice of craftily circumventing that obligation. 

The Regential pattern over most of the past several decades has deviated from advancing multiple finalists for the presidency. Instead, the Regents have almost invariably conducted a secret search, announcing a single “finalist,” and anointing that individual president as a fait accompli with no public oversight or input. It’s akin to a beauty pageant having only one contestant and, after the obligatory gestures, crowning that individual’s head.  Indeed, even the Vatican is more transparent, but not much, before white smoke floats from the Cathedral signifying the selection of a new Pope.

Data demands

The process flies in the face of the Minnesota law, which demands that public, taxpayer-supported bodies must comply with the state Government Data Practices Act, one of the state “Sunshine laws.” It requires them to publicly identify any “finalist” for high-level leadership positions. The statute defines “finalist” as a person chosen to be interviewed by the governing body. 

Most governmental units follow the law, ranging from counties, municipalities, school boards, as exemplified by the Minneapolis Public Schools, six weeks ago identified two eminently qualified finalists for the position of Superintendent and held informative public interview sessions with each of them before selecting a former Minneapolis educator, Lisa Sayles-Adams. Other publicly-funded college campuses throughout the state do likewise, usually with two or three final candidates. 

But not here in the Twin Cities, where the Regents have, with rare exceptions for token runner-up candidates, cut corners by announcing a lone “finalist,” who is de facto chosen by the Board and then subjected to a perfunctory public interview session before being formally given the position. 

Valid reasons underlie the “Sunshine” provision, enabling the public, which is footing the bill for the selection process, to see how its money is being spent. More significantly, it permits members of the public to know who’s seeking the position and to weigh in with anecdotal remarks or other comments that might bolster particular candidates or sound warning alarms over their shortcomings, a process that had it been followed may have prevented the Gabel fiasco.

The principal rationale espoused by the Regents and others who support their penchant for habitually blotting under the “Sunshine”  in this contrived way is that publicly disclosing the identities of multiple candidates, rather than solely the lone de facto appointee, would deter many quality candidates from applying, especially those already in upper echelon positions in academia, because of concern that public disclosure of their interest would damage their standing at their current institutions by reflecting a lack of loyalty. It also, one might surmise, discourage prospective aspirants who fear the embarrassment of not being selected, which could create a feeling of rejection and air of defeat.

But these reasons are tenuous, at best. Many institutions of higher learning with similar “Sunshine” laws, policies or protocols disclose multiple finalists, even all candidates.  There is little anecdotal evidence that those practices scare away quality applicants. 

Indeed, the University’s habitually secretive approach has hardly blessed the institution with consistently stellar leadership, and Gabel is (sorry to pick on her) is a poster child for that inadequacy. 

But even if that concern of repelling surmise that some worthy, squeamish candidates don’t apply, it is trumped by the state’s commitment to transparency in public affairs that ultimately transcends the trepidations of academics seeking to enhance their lucrative employment arrangements at the expense of the taxpayers.

Openness should overcome opacity. 

The University has the opportunity in the current presidential selection process to learn from its mistakes and refrain from its lone “finalist” gimmick, a procedure that was discredited by a ruling of the state Supreme Court nearly two decades ago in a case brought by this newspaper and other media, Star Tribune v. Board of Regents, deeming the University’s gambit improper. But the Regents nonetheless persisted –– like Nick Carraway, the character in St. Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald’s in “The Great Gatsby,” rowing their “boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past,” during the ensuing searches, including the one that yielded the overmatched Gabel.

This time, the public ought to insist the Regents heed the oft-repeated admonition of George Santayana from his epic 1905 work “The Life of Reason” that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” They ought to learn a lesson from the recent Superintendent selection process in Minneapolis and come up with multiple candidates. 

If the Minneapolis school system can do it, why not the University?

Marshall H. Tanick is a University of Minnesota alumnus and Twin Cities Constitutional and employment law attorney.

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