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‘UMN’ presidential search: praise and precedent

The openness of these proceedings may promise more transparency in the future.
Image by Sarah Mai

The announcement on Feb. 8 by the Board of Regents of the names of the three finalists for the school’s Presidency has drawn praise from many quarters, especially advocates of openness in government.

The trio, who will be going on a roadshow to the University campuses in Greater Minnesota and then interviewed publicly by the Board on Feb. 26 prior to a selection soon afterward, seem to be a talented, somewhat diverse group with extensive administrative and hands-on classroom experience, in addition to varying degrees of ties to the state: Laura Bromberg, the president of Cleveland State University and former Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs here; Rebecca Cunningham, a Vice President fellow Big Ten University of Michigan, who says she has Minnesota family members; and University of New Mexico Provost James Holloway, whose nexus is slighter, limited to business trips to the campus, although his school’s men’s basketball team is coached by former Gopher coach Richard Pitino, who has turned around a moribund program into a championship contender.

While the credentials and relationships of the three vying for the $1 million-plus position are noteworthy, the diversity criterion is noticeably lacking any finalists of color, continuing the tradition of only white presidents here.

But otherwise, the threesome put together by the outside search firm hired by the Regents for $200,000, aided by an internal advisory committee, seems to have earned its pay. The question remains whether the person ultimately to be chosen will earn hers or his. 

Pleasing precedent

In addition to the praiseworthy trio of aspiring presidential finalists, another important feature of this selection process, unlike past ones, is its ground-breaking and pleasing transparency and what it may portend for the future of administrative matters at the University.

For decades, the institution has consistently revealed only a single “finalist,” who then is inevitably appointed as a fait accompli without any public input or participation or the ability for it to vet the candidates. The Regents have done so in defiance of state law and court rulings urging more transparency in the process, rather than trying to circumvent the obligations of openness. 

The Regential resistance to greater openness has been predicated on the misplaced fear of deterring good candidates who might decline to apply because of public exposure at their current institutions, coupled with embarrassment if not chosen, as reflected — and refuted — a few weeks ago in this space.

That form of secrecy, however, has been counter-productive, often producing inferior applicants, a less-than-stellar pool of candidates, and a second-rate selection like during the immediately preceding cycle.

The decision this year to name the multiple finalists vying for the position is a triumph for transparency. By jettisoning opacity in favor of openness, the Regents have taken a major step in adherence to the letter and spirit of the state “Sunshine” laws, the Data Practices Act and the Open Meeting Law.

Hopefully, the disclosure process used this time will not be a one-off, and the Regents will follow it in the future. It also represents a clarion call for more transparency in University governance in general, which has habitually been more opaque than open.

The University’s stride into the “Sunshine” should constitute an important precedent for the public’s right to know. 

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

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