Administrators fumbled firing of football coach

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2014 - 6:54 PM

Arbitrator’s ruling raises questions about Mankato case.

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Minnesota State University, Mankato, head football coach Todd Hoffner spoke at a news conference in Mankato to discuss the dropping of all child-porn charges.

Photo: MARLIN LEVISON • Star Tribune,

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Administrators in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system rank among the very top state employees when it comes to pay.

According to a list of 2012 salaries for 72 MnSCU administrators provided this week by legislative officials, all but a handful make considerably more than Gov. Mark Dayton’s annual compensation of $120,311. MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone was paid more than three times what Dayton earned. Richard Davenport, president of Minnesota State University, Mankato, saw his salary increase from $218,354 in 2006 to $289,800 in 2012.

The justification for these wages, and the now-discontinued practice of providing bonuses, has been that the state needs the best and brightest to lead these critical institutions and to be good stewards of state resources. That’s why, in the wake of new details about the bungled effort to fire Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner, Minnesotans deserve an answer to this important question:

Did Davenport and other MnSCU officials handle this difficult, high-profile personnel issue in a manner commensurate with their pay?

As state Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, pointed out in an interview this week, not only were Hoffner’s career and reputation at stake, so were taxpayer funds. Long after a judge threw out the dubious child-porn charges that had been filed against Hoffner, officials doubled down on their premature decision to fire him and continued to build a case to do so.

Hoffner, who had quickly built a winning football program at the southern Minnesota college, was suspended, transferred to a noncoaching position and then fired in May 2013. He returned as the Mavericks’ head coach this week after an arbitrator ruled strongly in his favor and ordered his reinstatement.

“By the time you’re done, you’ve spent six figures on legal fees,’’ said Pelowski, who chairs the Minnesota House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee. “That diverts resources away from a number of things,’’ he added, the most important of which is holding down tuition.

University officials also apparently pursued a settlement with Hoffner, a situation that could have diverted state funds away from other important uses.

The new details about Hoffner’s firing came out in an arbitration ruling dated April 9. The state Bureau of Mediation Services declined to make the ruling public, citing a questionable interpretation of data privacy laws.

The Star Tribune obtained a copy of the ruling this week. Its 72 pages are highly critical of school officials and their inability to back away from an early decision to fire Hoffner, even as concerns mounted that he had been wronged by an overzealous prosecutor.

Hoffner had been arrested in August 2012 after university officials found video on his malfunctioning smartphone of his three naked kids goofing off after bath time.

School officials apparently first decided in mid-October 2012 to fire Hoffner, but held off. After the judge threw out the child-porn charges against Hoffner in November 2012, which “should have ended the matter in the public eye,” according to the arbitrator, the university continued to build a case against him. Why it did so isn’t clear.

Hoffner was finally terminated in spring 2013 for the personal use of his university smartphone, the images found on the phone and his wife’s use of his university-issued computers, for pornographic websites accessed on this equipment and because of reports that his children sometimes came into the locker room.

The arbitrator found that the university could not prove that Hoffner looked at porn on the computers — instead, some of it was attributable to other users of the reissued equipment. Many people other than Hoffner had access to his password information and access to the equipment when no one was around. The accounts about kids in the locker room could not be substantiated.

The images found on the cellphone were also clearly not pornographic or sexually explicit, the arbitrator found. Nor did the personal use of his cellphone violate state policy. The university’s decision to move Hoffner into an office that appeared to be a dingy former storage closet far away from campus also drew criticism from the arbitrator, and for good reason. The move reflects pettiness on the part of top leadership instead of the fair-minded, evidence-based decisionmaking one would expect.

Davenport, the university president, was not available to answer questions about the arbitrator’s ruling, according to a spokesman. MnSCU Chancellor Rosenstone also was unavailable to answer questions about his involvement but provided a statement.

The lack of answers is unacceptable. Hoffner endured a harsh spotlight. The short-lived rebellion by Maverick players this week against his return shows just how hard he’ll have to work to rebuild his life. Legislators so far have said little about the handling of the coach’s employment. They do, however, have purview over the performance of Davenport, Rosenstone and other officials. It’s time for them to get involved and find out if Minnesota got the academic leadership it’s paying for.

  • MnSCU STATEMENT

    “Although the university’s actions were not upheld, there was absolutely no intentional wrongdoing by decisionmakers. Since learning of Coach Hoffner’s return, the university has been very intentional about welcoming him back and will continue to take steps necessary to support a smooth transition for him and his family.”

    DOUG ANDERSON, MnSCU’s communications and media director

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