Minnesota higher education doesn't need the headlines about executive compensation that have come from the University of Minnesota in recent weeks.
Eyebrows were raised first when President Eric Kaler announced that athletic director Joel Maturi would leave that post but remain on the university's payroll at the same salary, $351,900, as a fundraiser and special assistant to Kaler. That's a generous amount, but one that's justified if Maturi keeps up the fundraising pace he set as AD.
Then came word that a number of former executives were granted generous transition leaves on their way either back to the faculty or on to new careers. The tab for 10 such arrangements: $2.8 million.
The latest: A report that former President Robert Bruininks directed at least $355,000 in presidential discretionary funds to the Center for Integrative Leadership at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where Bruininks plans to assume a faculty position at a $341,000 salary after his post-presidential sabbatical ends later this year.
These aren't the sort of stories we expected in the wake of a 15 percent cut in state appropriations for the University of Minnesota last summer. They run contrary to the tone of no-nonsense efficiency that Kaler has aimed to set since taking office in July, and are undermining the university's lobbying position at the Legislature.
Of particular concern is that in the case of the last two reports, we evidently weren't the only surprised readers. The arrangements were also news to at least some members of the Board of Regents.
Paid transition leaves are contemplated in initial employment agreements with the institution's executives, "but from then on, it becomes a management issue," Regents chair Linda Cohen told Star Tribune reporters.
Her predecessor as board chair, Clyde Allen, said he had "a rough idea" of Bruininks' largesse toward the leadership center from discretionary funds. Other regents said they were uninformed.
"In my view, it's time that we systematically look into these things," Cohen told the Star Tribune on Monday.
We concur. Greater oversight by the regents is in order, of both executive transitional compensation and the president's discretionary funds.
Current university policies say that when an executive transition leave is granted, "salary and benefits are typically paid at the level of the assumed, or resumed, faculty or professional position rather than at the administrative salary level.'' That is not what happened in most recent cases.
Yet strike the word "typically," and that becomes a clear and defensible policy that balances the university's need to both hire top talent and demonstrate fiscal responsibility. It should be the rule going forward.
Presidential discretionary funds are a more complicated matter. It's reasonable and desirable for university presidents to have some academic funds under personal control. At comparable institutions, such funds are often more generous than those available at the University of Minnesota.
Such funds are generally directed to innovative special projects or to opportunities that prime the fundraising pump. The Center for Integrative Leadership fits both of those bills. It's a creative, promising new university-wide interdisciplinary venture jointly overseen by the HHH School and the Carlson School of Management. Bruininks' interest in spurring its growth is understandable.
But when Bruininks decided that he would join the center's faculty, his interest became personal. At that point, he should no longer have been the sole decision-maker over grants for that purpose.
He should have sought and received Board of Regents approval, lest it "look like I'm feathering a nest," as Bruininks himself said to reporters last week.
It's a shame to see such feathers flying around the praiseworthy record Bruininks built through a 35-year career at the University of Minnesota, including nine distinguished years as president. But the focus of today's university leaders must be on the institution's reputation, not the former president's.
Public trust in the university's fiscal responsibility has taken a hit in recent weeks, and the regents need to restore it.
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