Newly installed University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel pledged Friday to improve hiring processes at a campus environmental think tank, acknowledging that the center's job offer to a sitting DFL legislator "put at risk a core value" of the institution.
Gabel's statement, in response to inquiries by GOP lawmakers, is the latest in a scramble by U officials and DFL leaders to address a decision to hire DFL Rep. Jamie Long in July as a temporary fellow at the Energy Transition Lab of the U's Institute on the Environment. Long, a freshman lawmaker, resigned from the post this month after internal documents sought by House Republicans raised questions about preferential treatment in the hiring process and potential conflicts with his work at the Capitol.
Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman had previously said she would review the documents related to Long's hiring. But on Friday, the DFL leader disclosed that she, too, had been employed by the U previously and had taught two classes with Ellen Anderson, the former DFL legislator who hired Long at the institute. Given those circumstances, Hortman said Friday that she asked House Research to retain outside counsel to respond to GOP inquiries on the matter.
Gabel addressed the issue Friday in a response to Senate Republicans who had sought more information about Long's hiring and his role at the institute.
"[The institute] exists to engage the University and the broader community in service of our state and the world," Gabel wrote. "To do this work, the Institute must take steps to avoid even the appearance of partisanship or a conflict of interest. Learning from what happened, the institute will be implementing additional measures to hold its hiring practices — even for temporary positions — to a higher standard."
Gabel acknowledged that a lab manager had raised questions about whether it would be 'strange' for Long to, as part of his job, help draft a proposed job description regarding a legislative fellowship program for which he might later apply.
"In this case, the Institute recognizes that, as a whole, it did not give adequate consideration to whether Rep. Long's legislative position could have influenced his hiring or his ability to succeed in the short-term position, in practice or perception," Gabel wrote. Long did not conduct any work related to specific energy policies before the Legislature during his two months in the role, she said.
Republican Sen. Paul Anderson, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said in a statement that he appreciated Gabel's "thorough and forthcoming response" to lawmakers' questions. He said the committee "will continue to monitor the progress of their promise" to ensure proper hiring standards are upheld.
"It appears the University is taking the issue seriously and they understand even the appearance of partisanship or conflict of interest can put the reputation of the Institute at risk," he said.
Gabel's letter is the latest in a series of public steps the U has taken to address the controversy. Last week, the university confirmed that it had returned to the McKnight Foundation a $50,000 grant the institute had planned to use to create the fellowship. Officials said they planned to instead use a separate account that does not contain public funds to cover the salary costs incurred during Long's time with the U. Ellen Anderson, the supervisor who orchestrated the hiring, has been reassigned to a nonmanagement role.
Hortman has not responded to calls from House Republicans to temporarily strip Long from his caucus leadership roles pending an investigation.