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Rookie (university) presidents: Some quests for openness come at a real cost

C. Peter Magrath, who served as president of the University of Minnesota from 1974 to 1984, previously served two years as president of Binghamton University in Upstate New York.

Mitch Pearlstein
Mitch Pearlstein

C. Peter Magrath, who served as president of the University of Minnesota from 1974 to 1984, previously served two years as president of Binghamton University in Upstate New York. Without getting into the long and winding story, he’s finishing off his second stint as president there later this month — just a short of 40 years after he arrived the first time.

The fact that I worked for him at both institutions and that he’s a great friend and mentor is personally important, albeit not vital to this story, which has to do with how public universities have come to elect presidents. Or, more precisely, it’s about the constrained pools from which presidents get picked.

Peter was succeeded at the U of M by Ken Keller, Nils Hasselmo, Mark Yudof, Bob Bruininks, and now Eric Kaler. Nothing here casts any aspersions their way, and not just because the first four men are long-time friends and I deeply respect all five. The point rather is that not a single one of them had ever served as a university or college president before.

Returning to Binghamton and the sequencing there, Peter was succeeded in 1974 by Clifford Clark, then Lois DeFleur, and starting next month by Harvey Stenger, Jr. Just like those who followed Peter at Minnesota, not one of his successors at Binghamton had previously held a college or university presidency. Meaning, every single University of Minnesota president since 1984 has been a rookie, and save for Peter’s s concluding second act at Binghamton (which started out as an interim assignment last year), every new president there also has been a rookie since the days of Watergate.

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First-timers or interim leaders
In not dissimilar spirit, of the 11 public institutions in the Big Ten (excluding Penn State, where the president was recently fired in the child-abuse disaster), a majority is currently led by either first-time or interim presidents or chancellors: Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, along with Minnesota.

I would argue the largest reason so many public university presidents across the country are first timers goes back to the Watergate era and the explosion in the mid-1970s of open meeting and sunshine laws, at all levels of government, which have made it risky, and therefore often unlikely for sitting presidents to seek similar jobs elsewhere. This is the case insofar as the names of finalists for open presidencies at public institutions invariably become public toward the end of searches.

More specifically, sitting presidents are acutely aware that if it comes to be known they have been turned down for a presidency at another place, virtually every home-campus constituency would quickly question their continuing dedication and commitment. Some observers doubtless also would question their talent as well, wondering what flaws the other school had discovered but which they themselves had so far missed. Their leadership and clout would be compromised. Hence, presidents either choose not to become candidates for new presidencies in the first place, or if they do, they tend to remove their names late in the process, before finalists are publicly revealed, if they’re not reasonably confident they’ll be elected.

It wasn’t an accident, I presume, that of the five candidates who made very public visits to Binghamton earlier this year to meet with faculty, students and everyone else in town (all five of whom were eventually rejected by the chancellor of the SUNY system) not a single one had ever been a college or university president.

Laws effectively delete some top-tier candidates
None of this, I assure once again, is an argument against the general thrust for openness and sunshine in government going back nearly 40 years. Nor is it any slam at first-time presidencies for no other reason than second and third ones presume a first. Likewise recognized is that some people do their most consequential and brilliant work when they are younger and maybe more energetic and audacious. Still, I would argue that the election of public university presidents is one area where open-meeting and similar laws have not worked as well as they have in other spheres, as they effectively delete significant numbers of top-tier candidates.

Do I think it would be appropriate — which is to say, not a sin against democracy itself — if governing bodies for public universities were afforded greater discretion in exercising their fiduciary responsibilities by maintaining candidate confidentiality until selections are actually made, thereby not predictably scaring away many strong men and women?  I do — not that I expect this come to be in any presidential search in Minnesota anytime in my grandchildren’s lifetimes.

In lieu, all I modestly request is acknowledgment in purist circles that some quests for over-and-above openness can come with real costs.

Mitch Pearlstein is the founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.