Thursday might have been the first time the University of Minnesota Board of Regents interviewed Eric Kaler in public, but regents had already questioned him behind closed doors.

In groups of three, they talked with Kaler privately Wednesday morning in meetings not listed on his itinerary or mentioned during the public interview. Each meeting lasted about an hour.

Had the full board met with him in such a setting, it would have been a violation of the state's Open Meeting Law, which requires public bodies to give notification of such meetings.

"To me, this is a violation of the spirit of the law," said Jane Kirtley, director of the U's Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law. "I'm getting kind of fed up with the regents' total disregard for the public process."

But board Chair Clyde Allen said the regents "took pains" to plan those meetings in a way that wouldn't violate the law. "We think the law was followed scrupulously."

Spokesman Daniel Wolter said the meetings with the regents were not listed on Kaler's schedule because they were "not considered part of the formal process."

Members of the faculty and the public have criticized the regents for choosing one finalist in the first place, calling it an attempt to circumvent state law. Regents have said that they decided to name Kaler alone after two of the four semifinalists declined to be interviewed in public and the fourth candidate didn't match Kaler.

Although the U can conduct much of its search for a president in private, once the board decides to interview candidates, those finalists' names become public.

If the regents broke into smaller groups to meet Kaler "serially," they may be in violation of the law if they did it deliberately to get around the law.

"Setting up a deal where you can have little groups of regents talk to the prospective candidate -- making sure you don't constitute a quorum -- sure doesn't pass the smell test," said Don Gemberling, a lawyer and the former longtime head of a state agency that oversaw public records requests. "No wonder people don't trust the government."

U general counsel Mark Rotenberg said on Thursday that the small-group meetings were "social encounters." There are "certain conversations and personal encounters not covered by the Open Meeting Law," said Rotenberg, mentioning the Wednesday night dinner that the regents had with Kaler and his wife, Karen.

Kaler's three meetings involved the nine regents who were not a part of the search process. They were not interviews, Rotenberg said, "the way we designed it."

That's not the way that one regent described her session with Kaler.

"We were just firing questions at him," regent Venora Hung said. "We all had a million questions in our head, like, 'How are you going to react to the budget?'

"I would describe it as an intense conversation for an hour."

That meeting helped the regents who had not yet met Kaler get a sense of him as a person, Hung said, and he performed well.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168