Earlier this month, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents began considering whether to restore its approval authority over the U’s largest employment contracts. The authority would include the highest-paid, highest-profile coaches of Division I sports teams. The proposal has prompted healthy discussion across Minnesota about the role of the regents.
Minnesota’s Territorial Constitution charges the regents, elected by the Legislature, to oversee the operation of our land-grant university on our behalf. This is a broad charge that includes hiring a president, approving significant personnel and contract decisions, and setting strategic direction.
It also includes financial oversight, generally defined as “supervision of financial practice and policy implementation.” The coaching contracts for the U’s revenue-producing sports are significant both in public interest and cost.
Some express concern that regent approval of coaches’ contracts would get in the way of the experts hired to run the athletic department. Our distinguished chair, Dean Johnson, posed: “If I’m a potential athletic director candidate … and I’m listening to this discussion and doing my homework … I’m going to scratch my head and say, ‘What kind of job am I getting myself into?’ ” This merits consideration.
During my first term as a regent from 1989 to 1995, the board approved coaches’ contracts as it always had from its founding. Even with that oversight, we regents never sought to “micromanage” the terms of the contracts we approved, nor did an AD demand unchecked power to expose the U to unlimited financial risk. To the contrary, they effectively made the case for each contract they brought to the regents for approval.
So, would we discourage good candidates for athletic director if we returned to that level of oversight? No.
As reported by the Star Tribune (“Change is urged on big U coaching deals,” March 31), the trustees of eight of our 13 conference rivals approve their coaches’ contracts. This includes 2015 football national champion Ohio State, which defeated the Crimson Tide, a team whose coach has a contract approved by the Alabama regents. Our rivals to the east, the Wisconsin Badgers, left us behind about 20 years ago to become regular contenders in football and men’s basketball. Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez gets approval of his coaches’ contracts from the UW regents.
How about the teams in last week’s NCAA men’s basketball championship — North Carolina and Villanova? Their respective trustees reviewed and approved the contracts of those teams’ coaches. Would that the Gophers attracted the quality of the athletic directors at those institutions.
Nobody can credibly claim that regent oversight of multimillion-dollar contracts, with buyouts that would require state or tuition subsidies, would have a negative effect on Minnesota’s ability to attract a top athletic director. Rather, if an AD candidate or other university leader is uncomfortable with major financial decisions being reviewed by the board that represents the people of the state, they probably aren’t right for the job.
Although sports are not the university’s primary mission, polls show more Minnesotans relate to Gopher athletics than to any other aspect of the university. They want success — and programs with engaged and informed boards do better.
As we have seen recently, when our regents do not require accountability, individual decisions can lead to unfortunate results. Although effective regent oversight cannot guarantee outcomes, the current absentee approach has not led to financial or competitive success for key programs.
One can understand how some confuse financial and policy oversight with micromanagement. But there is a big difference between getting involved in negotiating a contract and reviewing the final result against the general budget and other public interests. As a Minnesotan, I want regents to ask questions and assure accountability before major issues arise rather than claiming after the fact that they had no way of knowing what was going on, as has too often been the case recently.
The university should return to the ranks of Ohio State, Wisconsin and other nationally competitive schools where trustees review and approve the highest-paid, highest-profile positions. Minnesota deserves an accountable Board of Regents committed to responsible financial and policy oversight while unashamedly pursuing excellence on and off the field of competition.
Darrin Rosha is a University of Minnesota regent representing the Third Congressional District.