The University of Minnesota is at an important point in its history as the Board of Regents selects its 17th president. The board is choosing a new president in the midst of a political firestorm and great division in the country and the state.
We must not let these politics and divisions affect the choice and potentially endanger the university. The university president must have an open, mutually respectful and trusting relationship with the Legislature and not be aligned with a political party or a particular stakeholder group.
We write on behalf of those who have retired from the university. The Retiree Association is composed of more than 550 members who are former faculty, staff and administrators. We continue to support the university (our members have committed $23 million to the current fund drive) and understand the special nature of what Minnesotans have created. We have worked for many presidents, spending our careers supporting, enhancing and helping to run this mammoth place. We bleed maroon and gold because of our pride in having assisted in the education of our students, the creation of new knowledge and inventions and the improvement of the state
The university is a great Minnesota success story. The state has created a world-class university (among the top 50 in the world) that educates our students (16,000 graduates each year), performs research of all kinds ($900 million each year in external funding), generates an estimated $8.6 billion annual economic impact for the state and provides the professional base supporting Minnesota’s business, agricultural and health industries. We need to continually improve what we have and be careful about what we change or add.
The U has been fortunate to have a series of presidents who have not only kept the enterprise going in the right direction but also improved it. Students at the U are more qualified than at any other time in its history. More research is done than at any time in history. More businesses are fostered by the university than at any time in its history.
The selection of a new president is critical to the state and the continued well-being of the university. We need a leader who provides vision, energy and optimism. The Board of Regents has created a commendable list of qualities that the new president must exhibit.
In our view the board should also consider the following:
• The ability to develop strong relationships with the university’s stakeholders, with particular emphasis on the Legislature. While the university is independent of the Legislature, a strong and collaborative relationship is crucial. In fact, statewide support and partnerships are essential for university success.
• A clear vision for the development of the university with specific goals to achieve that vision. We need a leader with ambition and optimism who can rally people to the unique role the university plays in higher education and the economic development of the state.
• Leadership and management ability to grapple with this large institution and the many pitfalls it encounters. The new president must lead more than 20,000 employees and implement a $4 billion budget for an institution that is diverse and complicated. The ability to understand and respond to financial challenges is crucial. Even more importantly, there will inevitably be events that require the president to stand up and be both clear and principled. This requires strong character, integrity and fearlessness in the face of public pressure.
Our hope is to avoid politics and division in the choice by focusing on the institution and its needs rather than on extraneous matters. In this choice, past success is indicative of future returns.
The Retirees Association recently had the opportunity to discuss our views with Regent Abdul Omari, chair of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee. His thoughtfulness regarding the needs of the university and the state gave us great confidence. The future of the university and the future of the state depend on the choice to be made.
Frank Cerra is retired academic health care vice president and William Donohue is retired general counsel, University of Minnesota.