University of Minnesota regents on Monday decided to bring in an outside person — former Hormel CEO and DFL congressional candidate Jeff Ettinger — to serve as interim president.
Regents who supported Ettinger's selection said they believed the university would benefit from bringing in someone with a fresh perspective but also leaving some of its other senior leaders in place as the university prepares for a major transition this summer.
"I just think we're ready for a very different point of view that embraces the mission yet brings us something fresh and different that we can build on," Regent Mary Davenport said.
Ettinger was one of four finalists who interviewed Monday for the chance to lead the university when current President Joan Gabel leaves to take another job. He told regents he has deep ties to the U, from which all four of his children graduated, and wanted to "be of service."
"I would like to be an agent of continuity and progress" helping the U to fulfill its goals, he said.
The regents' vote on Monday cleared the way for university officials to begin contract negotiations that would determine Ettinger's salary and start date. Regents have said they anticipate the interim president will be in place for about a year and will not take the longer-term job.
The interim president will take over at a time when the U faces steep scrutiny from lawmakers frustrated with how the university handled its budget request this year, with enrollment declines, and with the board's decision to allow Gabel to sit on a private board that has business with the U. Gabel has since resigned from that post.
The vote came one week after lawmakers selected three new regents, saying they wanted to have fresh perspectives on the board as it makes key leadership decisions.
Ettinger told regents, "I do think the university would benefit from more of a reset, that is a reset with the public." He pitched himself as a bridge-builder who would help with that reset by listening to a wide array of people.
According to his application materials, Ettinger has a bachelor of science degree from the University of California Los Angeles and a juris doctor degree from UCLA. He worked from 1999 to 2004 as president of Jennie-O Turkey Store. He went on to spend more than a decade working as chief executive officer of Hormel Foods Corp., where he told regents he often aimed to balance the interests of shareholders, farmers and animal welfare advocates, while adapting to a changing food industry.
He is currently board chair for the Hormel Foundation, which, among other things, is partnering with the U and Riverland Community College in Austin, Minn., to help create a complex for agricultural and climate change research and teaching.
Ettinger launched his first political campaign last year, running for the chance to represent Minnesota's First District in Congress but ultimately losing to U.S. Rep. Brad Finstad, a Republican.
Robyn Gulley was the sole regent to vote against Ettinger's selection, saying she had "one reservation."
"I have, for a long time, been really concerned about corporate influence in higher ed," she said, adding that her remarks were not about Ettinger specifically.
Regent Kodi Verhalen abstained.
Ettinger was chosen from a pool that included 21 candidates, eight internal and 13 external. Other finalists for the job were: Mary Holz-Clause, chancellor of the U's Crookston campus; Myron Frans, the U's senior vice president for finance and operations; and E. Thomas Sullivan, who previously served as president at the University of Vermont and before that worked as a provost and senior vice president at the U.