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10 questions for the U of M presidential candidates

Only a handful of faculty and few students are directly involved in identifying candidates for the next president of the University of Minnesota. Many more are concerned. At a time of great changes and challenges in public education, faculty and students need to hear how the candidates will address the major economic and intellectual issues facing the University of Minnesota. As the Regents and the Search Advisory Committee conclude the search process, members of Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education (FRPE) have a few questions we'd like to ask the candidates.

1. What is your position on the question of whether the education provided by a public land grant university is primarily a public good — for the community, the state and the nation — or a private benefit to individual students and their families? What actions would you take to incorporate your position on this question into the values and priorities of the University of Minnesota?

2. Do you believe that one of the metrics that are used to measure institutional worth should be the extent to which the institution supports and promotes social justice, both in its own community and in society at large? Why do you think that social justice issues are rarely, if ever, cited among the measures of excellence at the University of Minnesota and at other public institutions of higher education?

3. Do you support the right of employees to organize and join unions? In light of your answer to this question, how should the University of Minnesota respond when its employees seek to organize themselves into a union?

4. Would you support following the lead of other first-tier institutions of higher education in abolishing costly sports programs like football, basketball, and baseball — placing the emphasis on education, where it belongs, in a period of stated financial crisis?

5. Would you support the routine and anonymous evaluation of administrators by faculty members: that is, polling the faculty at least once annually to provide a well-publicized portrait of the faculty's confidence or lack of confidence in key administrators such as the deans, the provost, and the president? Faculty members are extensively evaluated at all levels (by students, administrators, and peers) in ways that directly affect their promotions, pay increases and retentions. Nothing comparable exists for administrators.

6. Some people are saying that the U-Promise Free Tuition scholarship program is too expensive to maintain in this tough economy. But this program makes it possible for students from low-income families to afford college, families who were hit hard by the recession and hit again by the "jobless recovery." How do you propose to keep education accessible and affordable to first-generation and working-class students?

7. Over the past 15 years or so, the Academic Health Center has been involved in a remarkable series of ethical and legal scandals, including a felony conviction for fraud in the Department of Psychiatry, sanctions by the NIH for illegally manufacturing and selling an immunosuppressant drug, a U.S. Senate investigation into conflicts of interest, a series of embarrassing investigative reports into questionable financial links between faculty members and the pharmaceutical industry, and most disturbing of all, the suicide of a young man in an industry-funded study in the Department of Psychiatry. What will you do to clean up this mess?

8. It is widely recognized that the current budget model harms the fulfillment of the university's mission; it contains, for instance, built-in disincentives to collaboration across colleges, negative rewards for improving the delivery of curriculum, and lack of controls over the ever-rising costs imposed on colleges by central administration. What changes would you make to ensure that budgeting processes support the quality of education across the university, rather than holding quality down?

9. The purported goal of the Strategic Positioning Initiative is to make this institution into one of the top three public research universities in the world. However, the only criteria that have been articulated for assessing progress toward this goal are numerical: four-year graduation rates, amount of financial aid awarded, number of degrees awarded per program, amount of grant money faculty bring in, and so on. One would think that being one of the "top three" would mean we provide the best possible courses, do superb research and scholarship, and engage with the public exceptionally well. But numerical criteria merely quantify the work of students and faculty, saying nothing about quality. With what values would you replace the quantification of academic work represented by the Strategic Positioning Initiative?

10. Since the rise of institutions of higher learning in Europe during the late Middle Ages, the liberal arts have been at the center of the enterprise. They anchored undergraduate and graduate education at the late 19th century German research universities and the American universities built on this model. They remained central to America's colleges and universities throughout the 20th century. Yet in recent years, the University of Minnesota's central administration has captured revenues generated by the College of Liberal Arts to staunch the fiscal hemorrhaging of high-overhead medical and science units and to supply other units with funding. CLA is cut to the bone: Faculty, staff, and administrators are overworked to an almost inhumane extreme, students are short-changed in terms of basic educational needs such as writing instruction, and sometimes even a variety of courses in their majors. Many programs that enriched research and teaching have been trimmed. What will you do to strengthen the liberal arts in the areas of research, curriculum, teaching, service, community outreach, and citizen engagement?

Timothy Brennan, Carl Elliot, Eva von Dassow, Catherine Squires and five others jointly wrote this article on behalf of the Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education (FRPE). Founded in February 2010, FRPE is devoted to restoring educational, scientific and scholarly values to the core of the university's work and to the management of its finances. It strives for democratic governance of the university by those who carry out its mission on behalf of the public.

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Comments (2)

One of the things we value most about working at the University of Minnesota is the strong support for – in fact reverence toward – freedom of expression. “Academic freedom” as our faculty like to say.

The statements above are all excellent questions and concepts deserving robust debate in this institution, especially at a time when the world continues its shift into an era where accountability is becoming paramount for any organization receiving taxpayer dollars - even one where the percentage of support is declining over time.

But we write to take issue with a few of the facts noted in item #7. While we're strong supporters of freedom of expression and opinion for all our employees – cloudy and purposely vague facts require correction.

Characterizing the past 15 years as exhibiting a "remarkable series of ethical and legal scandals" is a slap in the face of the 2,500 faculty who work across the Academic Health Center over a long period of growth and success.

The fraud case referenced by these authors occurred nearly 20 years ago, and, in fact, the faculty member cited left the University, and provided a thousand hours of free mental health care on the White Earth reservation as part of his community service. Attaching the Department of Psychiatry to that case is purposefully sensationalizing facts to fit an argument.

The NIH sanctions mentioned were indeed a low point for this University. However not only did those sanctions occur nearly 15 years ago, the authors fail to include the fact that those sanctions were lifted a decade ago, and that the NIH has since commended the University’s grants management process as exemplary.

And yes, there have been Senate requests for information, which are always responded to. The faculty member referenced above continues to take care of very grateful patients, and train residents in the leading edge of spine surgery. To that point, many of our faculty maintain very important relationships with a wide range of private business and industry to ensure their new ideas are readily translated into the marketplace - relationships that are reviewed through the University's new Conflict of Interest policy.

No one can ever claim that our University is free of controversies - how could it be when we actively seek bright, entrepreneurial faculty who remain human at their core. However, the role of our public institution is to apologize when mistakes are made, learn and make changes, then move forward to serve the state and region that supports us. And we would expect the same of our state's media outlets, like MinnPost.

-- submitted on behalf of the Academic Health Center administration:

Dear Academic Health Center Administration:

Characterizing the past 15 years as exhibiting a "remarkable series of ethical and legal scandals" is a slap in the face...

---------WRONG----------

Trying to blow off the fact that the past 15 years HAS been a "remarkable series of ethical and legal scandals" by nitpicking some of the cases is a smokescreen.

I assume you've read Carl Elliot's book? He is one of the co-authors of these ten questions and his book "White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine" is available for purchase at Amazon - http://amzn.to/9Qc0Zw

I also refer you to the following ethical and legal scandal:

U Doctor on Ethics Panel Was Disciplined

http://bit.ly/QnpeF

[And there is PLENTY more where that came from, Mr. Paquette.]

The point I am trying to make is that there is an abundance of evidence out there to back up the author's assertions of a remarkable series of ethical and legal scandals. To claim otherwise is disingenuous at best.

It is a slap in the face of the vast majority of AHC staff, who have acted in ethical and responsible ways, that this administration has been so lax for so long about these matters.

Sincerely,

William B. Gleason
Faculty member, College of Medicine
U of M grad, 1973