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Former U of M board chair wonders about the need to release names of presidential finalists

Maureen Reed
Maureen Reed

Maureen Reed, who chaired the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents during the 2002 presidential search, raises an intriguing question in an Aug. 8 Chronicle of Higher Education story.

The story, headlined “Too Much Sunshine Can Complicate Presidential Searches,” is No. 4 on the Chronicle’s most-read list. The 2002 search by the U’s Board of Regents is mentioned as an example of what happens when a tax-supported institution tries to keep the names of presidential finalists private and is “accused of conducting backroom activities.” As you may recall, newspapers in Minnesota sued to get those names and the state Supreme Court sided with the public’s right to know.

Even though the board eventually selected Robert Bruininks, who became an internal candidate, the Chronicle reported that Reed thinks publicizing the finalists’ names would have limited the pool of candidates. (Earlier this year, Reed was a DFL hopeful for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s seat.) But here’s the intriguing question she poses in the story:

“Ms. Reed also asks: With public financing dwindling, now accounting for far less than half of some universities’ revenue, how much does the public really need to know?”

The Chronicle goes on to quote the chair of the University of Tennessee’s current presidential search committee: 

“It’s an interesting question,” says James L. Murphy III. …”When the state was funding 70 to 80 percent of the cost of higher education, our institution looked a whole lot like any other government entity. As they become a smaller and smaller funder, at some point you have to question whether we’re just a private institution with a little bit of public support, or we’re a public institution.”

For the first time last year, tuition dollars raised from students exceeded the state’s appropriation to the U of M. Update: An earlier version of this story said the state’s general fund appropriation provides 25 percent of the U’s budget. I got this figure from university spokesman Daniel Wolter, who tells me this morning that he’s just learned the percentage is out of date. After all the state funding “rescissions,” the percentage is less than 18 percent in the current biennium, he said.

The U of M board’s 2010 search for Bruininks’ promises a more-open process. Sort of. According to the presidential-search website, step five of the seven-step process says: “Board reviews semi-finalists’ qualifications and publically identifies finalist(s).” If only one name is released, how open is that process? The Chronicle also explores the problems when a preferred finalist insists that only one name be released. 

The official process started here in May. Bruininks’ contract concludes next June, when he plans to return to the faculty. I expect that Minnesota news media will try to get a jump on the leading candidate(s) before the board is ready to name the “finalist(s).”

Current Board Chair Clyde Allen would like to complete the process by winter, Wolter said.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/11/2010 - 08:42 am.

    “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

    As Supreme Court Justice Brandeis put it.

    And you can never have too muich sunshine at the University of Minnesota…

    You would think that former BoRe chair Reed, having had her hand slapped by the Minnesota State Supreme Court, would know better. Perhaps this lack of self-awareness is the reason for her political demise?

    “How much does the public really need to know?”

    Do you realize how arrogant that comes off, Dr. Reed? You’ve heard of Marie Antoinette?

    Perhaps, if the U went private, it would be easier to run it in secret? But then we wouldn’t be building all those new buildings (and stadia) that the Morrill Hall Gang is so proud of, would we?

    I’d be careful about whining over the state’s contribution to the U. Perhaps we would get more if we did a better job explaining why the U deserves more support? If people like Dr. Reed didn’t come across as so arrogant to the citizens of the state?

  2. Submitted by Bill Gilles on 08/11/2010 - 02:00 pm.

    Here here to Bill Gleason. Sunshine is very much missing from the opaque minds of the University’s masters – where every meeting, every memo, and every decision needs to be ‘confidential’ so that the decision making process isn’t polluted by public input that isn’t carefully managed.

    Hey, if the U wants secrecy, all they need to do is say no to the hundreds of millions of dollars provided by the state’s tax payers. Afterall, it’s only 18%…

    But alas, I think Dr. Reed sums up the U’s position nicely – ‘we want the cake, and to eat it too’.

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