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When it comes to the U of M, maybe the enemy is ‘Us’

Morrill Hall, University of Minnesota
Morrill Hall, University of Minnesota

When I was in college, the most popular commentary on the human condition was a cartoon character named Pogo. And his most memorable line was, “We have met the enemy and he is Us.”

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Gov. Arne Carlson

Tragically, that sentiment is applicable today regarding our attitude toward the gross mismanagement shown by those who represent themselves as leaders at the University of Minnesota. Let there be no misunderstanding. We have a most competent faculty, excellence in research, and an eager-to-learn student body. But this commitment to excellence does not extend to Morrill Hall.

During the past year, there has been an array of negative stories about management that are harmful to the reputation of the University. All involve allegations of dishonesty, cover-ups, misrepresentations, conflicts of interest, financial abuse, and poor hiring practices. Self-indulgence clearly trumps public service. The environment is such that no one is responsible. For instance, we have learned that in the area of testing drugs for large pharmaceutical companies, the oversight process was corrupted by the presence of university professionals who were on the payroll of the very companies whose drugs were being tested. We also know that the former chief counsel of the university wrote the language claiming exhaustive investigations by entities that never engaged in such endeavors. Further, we know that President Eric Kaler, his management team, and the Board of Regents used those false claims to beat down critics, including faculty members who called for an independent review. They simply buried the truth.

Sadly, this was all brushed aside by Kaler’s promise of new “protocols” that would eliminate all problems. In short, no one was to be held accountable for the wrongdoings of the past.

Where is the oversight?

Now, we have a growing scandal in the athletic department where Kaler and the Board of Regents hired an athletic director and associate without proper review and the result has been a very public sex scandal and the usual cries of shock from the appointing authorities. This was followed by the revelation of extraordinary misspending and waste in the athletic department. Again, no one is accountable.

There is a reason for this and that is there is no oversight of university management. The sad reality is that the Board of Regents is little more than a band of cheerleaders for the president and regents are content as long as they are accorded praise from the administration and receive a variety of perks including box seats at the football games, etc. It is more about recognition than responsibility.

And then we have the Minnesota Legislature, which appoints the Regents but fails to conduct any meaningful public oversight.

One positive legislative move

The one move the legislature made that was positive was the engagement of the Legislative Auditor to audit drug testing at the university. Yet, although the report was highly critical, the legislature refused to hold hearings on the cover-up or hold the president and the Regents accountable. This environment clearly invites more abuse, more harm and more negative revelations.

No organization can succeed without good management and quality oversight. If anyone doubts the content of this column, my question to you is: If this were a private company, would you invest in it?

But we as citizens do invest in it and invest heavily. That is precisely what we should do, because the University of Minnesota is central to our quality of life. They do such a superb job in discovering and preparing our children and us for tomorrow. Unfortunately, academic and research excellence is jeopardized by inept managers whose philosophy is misguided and self-serving.

Fortunately, Regent Michael Hsu, a more recent appointee, has been raising his voice publicly about the lack of communication and handling of Norwood Teague's resignation. This gives me hope. However, it is time for all of us to recognize our responsibility to speak out and insist on a thorough housecleaning at Morrill Hall. If we fail to do so, then Pogo’s truth becomes our reality and we fail our children.

Arne Carlson served as Minnesota's 37th governor. He served two terms, beginning in 1991.

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Comments (10)

The athletic department

I have always liked the fact that when you get down to it, the University of Minnesota doesn't really care about it's athletic department, or athletics in general. As expensive as these activities might seem now, they would be a lot more expensive if the U, with the increased oversight, i.e. the increased level of interest among the administration, that Gov. Carlson advocates.

For a lot of reasons, historical and ahistorical, stated and unstated, the University of Minnesota is expected to participate in big college athletics. Assuming we don't want to engage in the Herculean task of changing that, our current policy of mostly benign, mostly neglect of the athletic department while we focus on stuff that really matters to Minnesotans, is entirely defensible.

"Assuming we don't want to engage . . ."

Let's stop making that assumption. Let's instead look at why we expect the University to "participate in big college athletics."

For starters, let's have the athletic department justify that expectation. Don't leave reasons unstated--make the department tell us why it is needed. Does it bring in revenue to the University? Does any of this revenue go to non-athletic programs, like academics (remember them?)?

How is the athletic department advancing what the University claims as its mission--a dedication "to the advancement of learning and the search for truth; to the sharing of this knowledge through education for a diverse community; and to the application of this knowledge to the benefit of the people of the state, the nation, and the world?" Does the recruitment of promising high school athletes to come and play until they are offered a pro contract fit in with that mission?

Qualities of the U of M

To Former Governor Carlson,

I suggest you attend a class or seminar at the U in the Physical Sciences, They do not do cutting edge research nor have competent faculty.

I was at a seminar hosted by DEED for water treatment where the Met Council was showcasing their new bioreactor technology developed at the U. I can tell you as a professional most people were snickering because that design is almost 30 years old, perfected 20 years ago and a far better model is commercially available worldwide. It was embarrassing.

This summer I needed a CE class and had to listen to U of M instructors try and tell us how rainfall never penetrates to the aquifer and anything deeper than 84 inches I believe was the number, hasn't seen water since the glaciers. This so incredibly wrong on so many fronts it hurts to think about it but I had to pay over $300 buck just to get the credits.

BTW - I'm hydrologist with a degree in geology who has built bioreactors and has 30 years field experience.

Benign neglect of athletics

is too expensive and not harmless or defensible. This is a matter of misplaced priorities.

W. Gleason
retired U of M prof and alum

Arne for AD, sort of...

It seems that the BOR has little interest in overseeing athletics and the U President see's it mostly as a minefield that offers more negatives than positives, why not have an Athletics Board of Advisers that makes the significant decisions like AD hires, facilites, etc... and their decisions get a final review/approval by the President and BOR. The aforementioned negatives can be mostly eliminated by following the Athletics Board of Advisers guidance (blame all the bad stuff on them). There are plenty of smart, dedicated, sincerely caring and capable people like Arne who would gladly serve on this board and likely make much better decisions than we currently get.

Conflicting missions

I don't know what the official mission statement of the university is, but from the department politics I have had knowledge of, the de-facto mission generating intense competition and secrecy, is fund raising-- be it in the form of grants for research or athletic success. Department heads can create fiefdoms that insulate them from criticism (or whistle blowing.) A toxic atmosphere for faculty and students -- even in departments that, by their overt mission, one would expect to be more benign --can develop. I wish I knew a solution. Financial needs are real and human beings are flawed when personal power is at stake. Meaningful, knowledgable oversight without conflict of interest or cronyism is all I can think of. That and a true understanding by the public of the cost of excellent education. Are there other large public education institutions that do it better that we can learn from?

State-wide

These administrative problems you note are not unique to the University of Minnesota. They are part of a state-wide restructuring of education in Minnesota from K-12 to higher education. If you dig deep enough, you'll discover that the same players involved in the increased, unaccountable, exploitative, unreachable, and nearly-impossible-to-get-rid-of bureaucratic shenanigan-makers at the U have also been responsible for the massive upheaval at MnSCU and MPS with the same concerns-cronyist hiring practices and old-boys-club management hidden behind all the right academic jargon.

Governor Carlson - U of M

As Gov Carlson mentioned, there is a theme here: it really takes years of blatantly inappropriate behavior before the corruption has any real chance of being caught. It doesn’t matter whether if that behavior is extravagant spending, or coercive psychiatric clinical trial behavior, or sexually harassing the U's Presidents staff, it will take a very long time before anything is done, and ultimately one cannot count on administrators to do the right thing unless they have no other choice in the matter. Absolutely, positively, no other choice. History has taught us that the current president and most of the sitting regents will do absolutely nothing.

so what can be done?

I have seen someone else call the U a collection of ungovernable fiefdoms. It certainly does not operate in a democratic way and the presumed mission of providing education to the public is in danger. Gov. Carlson, do you have some ideas for changing how the U works? Is there a way to change the whole structure of the administration? How about an elected council and officers, drawn from and voted on by faculty and staff and perhaps students too, instead of professional bureaucrats running the show? Does the legislature have the power to make these kinds of changes?

Corruption

The problem with corruption is that it works. Big donors can influence U policy, presumably, by what they are willing to support. This can be corrupt, but it's also a fact of life. And the corruption is passive in a way. A drug company may or may not choose to try to actively persuade the U to pursue drug research. But if the U wants to drug research, drug companies are a logical place to go for money. I don't see an easy way of unwinding that particular dynamic. We could try to fully fund the U, but as Joe Soucheray points out on a daily or maybe weekly basis, where education and research are concerned, enough is never really enough, never has been and never will be.

Gov. Carlson veered off into U athletic policy, always red meat, but not really helpful in that it has a separate set of problems, and really is kind of isolated from the financial issues confronting the U as a whole.