The 15 public appointees who oversee MnSCU — the state’s crucial network of state universities and community and technical colleges — have serious work ahead of them to put the trust back in the board of trustees on which they serve. It’s disappointing how difficult it is to tell if this reality has sunk in after the recent troubling news that the board renewed its well-paid chancellor’s contract eight months ago, and gave him a healthy raise, without bothering to take a vote on the deal or make the details public.
News of the deal with Steven Rosenstone surfaced this week, and the timing could not have been worse for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which serves more than 430,000 students around the state. The system’s leadership has increasingly come under fire from legislative critics, such as state Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, for steady tuition hikes that leave graduates with burdensome debt.
Contract negotiations with faculty, whose last agreement expired a year ago, have been unproductive. And earlier this month, the union for 4,000 MnSCU faculty members released a harsh job review of Rosenstone. Among other things, the faculty union memo criticized him for poorly representing the system at the Legislature and protecting the administration from budget cuts instead of the programs or services directly impacting students.
That Rosenstone’s contract had been settled quietly, and with a bump in salary and expenses that made up for the administrative bonuses banned by state lawmakers, understandably raised ire statewide. While the generous compensation package does not appear to be out of line with colleagues at peer institutions (whether education administrators’ pay in general is too generous merits debate another day), the board’s handling of the contract is unacceptable.
Trustees are there to provide oversight on behalf of the public. It’s hard to see how they lived up to their responsibilities by failing to follow up with board chairman Clarence Hightower after delegating to him negotiation duties with Rosenstone. Incredibly, some of the trustees apparently weren’t aware of the terms until this week. That reflects poorly not just on Hightower, but on everyone serving.
By not voting on the contract, the trustees also cut the public out of a process it deserved to be engaged in. Taxpayers should have been informed about the new compensation package. Rosenstone, who already was one of the state’s top-paid employees, will now make a base salary of $387,250. The lack of transparency also meant that legislative leaders such as Pelowski and state Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, both of whom lead key education committees, were out of the loop.
It’s unclear what they might have done differently had they known about Rosenstone’s contract during the last session, but it’s information they should have had. Gov. Mark Dayton also expressed dismay over the contract’s handling this week.
What makes this situation even more outrageous is the high caliber of people on the board. The 15 members are gubernatorial appointees. Some began serving under Jesse Ventura, with appointments continued by Tim Pawlenty. Dayton has seven appointees on the board, including the three student trustees.
Among those serving are Margaret Anderson Kelliher — former speaker of the state House — and former legislators Duane Benson and Phil Krinkie. This is not a board of lightweights. Its members should know better than to keep matters like this under wraps.
Asked this week for comment, the three either declined to respond or directed an editorial writer to Hightower. In an e-mail, Hightower said he was following precedent for contract renewals and added, “It didn’t cross my mind to bring it back for a final vote because to my knowledge it had never been done before.’’
A story by Star Tribune reporter Jenna Ross, however, said there are mentions of votes on a former chancellor’s compensation in past news articles and meeting minutes. Regardless of what was done in the past, a full board vote should be standard operating procedure.
Hightower also did not help himself or the board by dubbing the lack of transparency “an unfortunate oversight,” a “distraction” and a “lapse in communication.’’ These characterizations trivialize a lack of judgment and raise concerns about the board’s broader oversight.
Board members’ public remarks this week about Rosenstone’s closed-session job review did little to inspire confidence. Their gushing sentiments are at odds with high-profile criticism from Pelowski, the faculty union and from this page, which has praised Rosenstone’s planning prowess but also criticized MnSCU’s bungled firing of the football coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Pelowski and Bonoff have vowed to follow up on the questions raised by the poor handling of the contract. Good. Clearly the board charged with assessing Rosenstone’s performance is in need of a job review itself.