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

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.

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: 

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“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this figure from university spokesman Daniel Wolter, who tells me this morning that he’s just learned the percentage is out of date.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.