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Our treasured U of M needs new institutional culture to do right by its students and community

CC/Flickr/Mac H (media601)

On Tuesday the University of Minnesota Regents received a briefing on the two investigations that they commissioned in response to recent developments within their Athletics Department. These investigations were called for by the Regents and President Eric Kaler and were in direct response to complaints of sexual harassment committed by the former athletic director, Norwood Teague, and revelations regarding expenditures during his tenure. As they called for these investigations, we in the Legislature asked our Auditor, James Nobles, to provide investigational oversight and provide us with a complete assessment to their merit and credibility. Rep. Bud Nornes, Rep. Gene Pelowski, Sen. Jeremy Miller and I, as the leaders of the Legislature’s higher education committees, made this formal request. We did this because we do not have access to all the documents available to the investigators, yet our Auditor does, and we place our faith in his judgment.

Sen Terri BonoffState Sen. Terri Bonoff

It is my intention, as chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee in the Minnesota Senate, to have a hearing on this matter as soon as practicable. We will do this after Auditor Nobles has the chance to complete his review.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson, in Monday’s Community Voices (“When it comes to the U of M, maybe the enemy is ‘Us’), rightly pointed to egregious actions that have occurred at the university. He calls on the Regents to do their job and exercise oversight. He commends Regent Hsu for his high-quality service in his brief tenure. Thank you Regent Hsu, but also to all who are willing to lead with courageous and effective action under the leadership of Chair Dean Johnson. Our Regents are not just serving to attend games or be a rubber stamp. We all know how difficult it is to challenge the “institutional culture” of an organization in a way that affects positive, transformational change, but that is what is required of this body and our current administration. Yet, we are hearing too many stories of waste and abuse. We are hearing that the institutional culture that has contributed to many of the recent revelations has not yet shifted. We must demand a new culture where a clearly communicated and inspiring vision results in nimble and innovative action that produces extraordinary outcomes for students, families and our citizens at large.

Bold action is needed

Let us not waste this latest crisis, and, instead, affirm our commitment to offer the best-value, highest-quality educational experience to each and every UMN student! Let us do this by taking bold and decisive action to root out those who are not willing and able to lead in this manner and shine a spotlight on all actions that are inconsistent with the path to excellence. More important, let us ask our leaders to elevate the standing of those who are leading in a transformational way, and share their best practices with those who are determined to excel.

Lastly, with all due respect, Gov. Carlson acknowledges the work done by Auditor Nobles to uncover the travesties committed related to psychiatric drug testing, but then inaccurately states that the Legislature did not hold hearings on this matter. Immediately following the release of this important audit, the Minnesota Senate held a three-hour hearing to review the findings and make certain there was complete transparency as to what actually transpired. Numerous media outlets covered this hearing. President Kaler, Regent Patricia Simmons and Dean Brooks Jackson were just some of those who attended, testified and responded to legislative inquiries. The public was given as much time as they needed to express their comments as well. It was a serious hearing whereby President Kaler publicly apologized to the family of Dan Markingson.

More hearings to come

We all were keenly aware that although it was a serious hearing, it was nothing in comparison to the pain and trauma experienced by victims and their families who were mistreated in the drug-testing program. Since then, we receive monthly briefings on the implementation of the reforms that both newly enacted legislation and President Kaler demanded. I guarantee that when session resumes there will be more hearings on this.

Many Minnesotans have reached out to me expressing their indignation at the recent revelations. They do so in the spirit of a deep and profound commitment to the promise of our treasured University of Minnesota. I stand with Minnesotans in that commitment and pledge to do all I can to uphold the highest ethical standards as I fulfill the honor of service.

State Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL, Minnetonka, is the chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development.

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If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 12/09/2015 - 04:46 pm.

    U of M Grad Agrees

    I am in agreement with Sen. Bonoff and former Governor Carlson. As a graduate of the U of M I am extremely concerned about the direction the U continues to take. I am one of those who still wish they had kept the General College as an option for Minnesota students. Although I like the “research” focus in the recent years, I fear that direction is creating an elitist culture where an arrogant attitude is developing among leadership.

    As a public tax based institution there is no excuse for the kind of expenditures we have seen lately. If alumni donors or athletic boosters pay for those excesses that is their business. To have taxpayers pay for those is outrageous. For those who made those decisions what were you thinking? And for those who knew about it – or didn’t know – where is the supervision and accountability we expect you to provide.

    If we are foregoing common sense and leaving behind a college created for ALL students then no intervention is necessary. If, however, we feel that arrogance and elitism has no place in our state university then there is much work to be done.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/10/2015 - 06:25 am.

    Bold actions

    So what, exactly, is to be done? Aside from commending regents, and holding more three hour hearings?

    It seems to me we can go specific or we can go general. The headline of this piece talks about changing the institutional culture at the U. Sen. Bonoff doesn’t go into a lot of specifics about that, but I wish she would and maybe she will in future columns. It’s certainly a discussion that’s worth having. But at the outset, I have to point out that the power and the inertia of the status quo, is quite formidable. We can talk all we want about interests and their conflicts, but it is a fact of life that people do have interests, and that they often come into conflict. If we don’t have a way to mediate those conflicts effectively, the folks involved will take their interests elsewhere. And I don’t see much prospect that the legislature will step in with the additional funds and effort, to fill the gaps left by those departures.

    When these issues arise, usually in the context of some temporary set of scandals such as the university is dealing with now, the talk is all of transparency, But with respect to transparency, windows aren’t much use if no one is looking through them, and with respect to spotlights, they have a way of moving on.

  3. Submitted by Nicole Helget on 12/10/2015 - 12:13 pm.

    How can we hold you to this?

    “Let us do this by taking bold and decisive action to root out those who are not willing and able to lead in this manner and shine a spotlight on all actions that are inconsistent with the path to excellence.”

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