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University of Minnesota regents are put on the spot over filling top job

December 5, 2018

At least two of the three semifinalists for the University of Minnesota president job have told the U’s governing board they are willing to be named finalists — and go public with their identities — only if they are the sole front-runner for the position.

That places university regents in a delicate position going into a Wednesday meeting to make decisions on finalists: They will be forced to rally around a single finalist to interview publicly — or scrap what board members generally agree are strong contenders recommended by the U’s 23-member search committee.

Some regents say they are uncomfortable with advancing only one finalist and even question if a do-over of the search process is in order. Faculty and others have also called for a chance to vet multiple candidates publicly.

But other regents said they believe the search process has worked well and produced stellar semifinalists. They said it is understandable that high-profile candidates, particularly sitting university presidents, would balk at going public, which could sour their relationships with their own governing boards, donors and lawmakers.

All board members said they are intensely conscious of the high stakes as the search enters its decisive final stretch.

“It’s the most important decision we as regents make: Who will be captain of this ship?” said Regent Dean Johnson, one of four regents who spoke Tuesday about facing the prospect of having a sole finalist.

Some search process critics said Tuesday that they are disappointed the board might be headed for a reprise of the search that brought in President Eric Kaler, himself a sole finalist for the position in 2010. They criticized a plan to hold off on naming any finalists until Thursday morning though their identities technically become public when the board picks them as finalists Wednesday afternoon.

In September, the university launched a fast-paced, 12- to 16-week national search to replace Kaler, who is stepping down next summer. The search drew 67 applicants, and the search committee made up of faculty, staff, students and others interviewed five women and four men to narrow the list to three.

Reluctance to be named

On Wednesday, the regents will discuss these candidates without mentioning their names or any details that could reveal their identities. Under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the identities of applicants for public positions are private until they are formally selected as finalists.

David McMillan, the board chairman, said the university will need at least three hours after the meeting to notify the finalist or finalists and allow them to notify their employers, likely pushing any public release of names until Thursday morning. “We’ve got people with important jobs in important places,” he said. “They need time to coordinate.”

Asked if withholding names until the following morning is a violation of the Data Practices Act, he said the law simply makes those names “subject to a Data Practices Act request,” which takes time to process.

Some regents said they are going into that Wednesday meeting concerned about the terms some of the front-runners have set about being the sole finalist. Regent Michael Hsu, who has said having a single finalist is his “biggest fear,” says he still feels strongly that the university community and public should be able to weigh in on more than one candidate.

Regent Randy Simonson said he understands the candidates’ reluctance to be named but wants to talk with more than one would-be president about plans to serve rural Minnesota and draw a more diverse student body to the U’s campuses. He said he might pitch redoing the search, extending the process into next year.

“I’ll try to go into the meeting with an open mind,” he said. But, he added, “It will be difficult for me to say tomorrow, ‘You’re the one.’ ”

Regents could also nominate an applicant other than the three nominated by the committee to be considered for a finalist.

Regent Linda Cohen said she does wish she could talk to the front-runners before zeroing in on a favorite: Poring over application materials is not the same as meeting and interviewing candidates. The three regents who served on the search committee, including its chairman, Abdul Omari, can shed some light — but they have to be careful to do so without outing the applicants.

Still, she said, she is comfortable with emerging from Wednesday’s meeting with a sole finalist. Johnson agreed, noting that a diverse search committee and the U search firm have devoted extensive time to vetting applicants.

“I think due diligence has been done,” he said. “You have to trust the process and trust the people.”

Cohen said she would like the university to appeal to the state Legislature once again to make an exception for the U and allow regents to interview finalists for the president job in private.

Single finalists on the rise

In 2004, the state Supreme Court found university regents broke the law in interviewing finalists for the presidency in private. Six years later, the U named only one finalist, Kaler, and hosted closed-door meetings with small groups of regents.

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the U and a vocal critic of recent presidential searches on campus, said she is frustrated with the process once again. She argues the university should not let candidates get away with “brinksmanship” tactics to avoid the embarrassment of being passed up for the job.

“We’re a state university, and what happens here is a matter of great public interest and concern,” she said. “It’s just healthier to me to present more than one option for public scrutiny.”

Marshall Tanick, a U alumnus and attorney involved in a late 1980s lawsuit over public disclosure during U presidential searches, said selecting sole finalists and holding off on disclosing their names a few hours might not violate the law, but these steps run afoul of its spirit of openness.

Presidential searches that produce a single finalist have been on the rise nationally as more high-level campus administrators have been unwilling to go public without reassurance they are the front-runners. University officials and search firm consultants point to a string of recent cautionary tales of university presidents who stepped down or faced intense criticism after becoming finalists for jobs they did not get.

Mitch Pearlstein, a U alumnus who served as an assistant to former U President C. Peter Magrath, said criticism of the regents fails to take into account how challenging it is to have a successful search without accommodating top administrators bent on confidentiality.

“My bias is in the direction of keeping names confidential as long as possible so we don’t lose out on superb candidates who don’t want to risk being embarrassed and undercut in their current positions,” said Pearlstein, founder and senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781

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