The kerfuffle over the salary for a new University of Minnesota president overlooks an even more important issue in the process of selecting a successor to Eric Kaler upon his departure at the end of the current academic year.
The Washington, D.C.-based search firm now spearheading the $150,000 effort, following replacement of a predecessor due to a conflict of interest, has assured the Board of Regents that its emergence this fall will not retard its progress or the goal of forwarding multiple candidates to the board for final consideration.
The projected pace of the process, working in conjunction with a designated 23-member Presidential Search Advisory Committee, is more realistic than the pledge of transparency.
Although state Data Practices law requires public disclosure of any “finalist” for the position, the university has in the past managed to effectively evade that obligation through a variety of schemes. The most prevalent one has been submitting the name of a single white man (yes, no women or minorities, yet) to the board for final consideration. As a consequence, the public is foreclosed from knowing the identities of the aspirants or much at all about the decisionmaking process.
That’s been the pattern for nearly 50 years, maybe longer. The institution’s reticence stemmed from the outcry that accompanied anti-Semitic remarks by a board member in the 1970s, questioning whether a prospective appointee who was Jewish could interact well with legislators because of his religious affiliation. The ill-advised remark and reaction to it generated a brouhaha that sidetracked the candidacy. (Incidentally, a generation later, a Jewish man, Mark Yudof, was named U president, and he served a rather tumultuous term from 1997-2002.)
After that incident, the institution retreated into secrecy during the presidential appointment process. Since then, in most cases it has disclosed only a lone “finalist,” making the ultimate selection about as anti-climactic as a Russian presidential election. That was the process followed in the designation of President Kaler seven years ago and in most other selections of high-level personnel at the U.
Indeed, that solitary selection practice permeates the institution. When Mark Coyle was hired in 2016 as athletic director to replace the sexual harassment scandal-plagued Norwood Teague, he was the only “finalist” disclosed to the public. That opaqueness was no surprise, since his predecessor, Teague, had also emerged from a one-man “finalist” pool without any inquiry into past predilections that were manifested in his brief tenure at the U.
The university maintains that this type of secrecy is necessary to avoid deterring qualified candidates fearful that disclosure of their interest in the position could, if they are not selected, compromise their standing at their current jobs, usually high-level positions in academia. But studies have shown that this is not necessarily so, as have the real life practices in other states or at other educational institutions in Minnesota with a greater commitment to transparency than the U’s lip service to the principle.
Even if openness were a deterrent to some aspirants, following that approach has several benefits that outweigh its perceived detriments.
Creation of a climate of transparency adds credibility to the selection process and makes stakeholders more likely to support it and the ultimate designee. It also increases the opportunity for the public to raise any concerns about the candidates before final selection.
Additionally, transparency helps educate the public about how the highly-paid outside search firm, internal committee, and regents themselves carry out their important duties.
Minimizing secrecy also elevates the potential for hiring of women and minority members, who can be more easily discouraged from seeking the position or quietly weeded out behind closed doors.
This is not to suggest that the future hiring process should be open to the public at every stage and for all purposes. Confidentiality has a role to play in the process, but it ought not be used to cast a shroud over how it has been handled.
To the contrary, the U ought to, at a minimum, identify multiple “finalists” for its presidency and allow a public vetting of them before the ultimate selection is made.
Selection of the next president at the U and, hopefully, those after him (or her) should not be accomplished with the equivalent of white smoke suddenly emanating from the chimney of the administrative headquarters in the McNamara Alumni Center on campus.
The writer is a Twin Cities constitutional and employment law attorney.