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Excerpts from recent Minnesota editorials

October 1, 2018

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sept. 28

What the University of Minnesota needs from its next president

Job includes helping the state address growing worker shortage.

The committee that will advise the Board of Regents as it hires a new University of Minnesota president has begun its work as it should: It’s doing a lot of listening. At seven sessions over nine days on the university’s five campuses, scores of stakeholders described the challenges that await retiring President Eric Kaler’s successor and the traits he or she will need to successfully meet them.

Listening is the proper predicate to the next step. A consensus needs to come quickly about the university’s leadership needs. The search advisory committee will be better able to craft and articulate such a consensus if it engages the U’s many constituencies now.

Comments are still being solicited at president-search.umn.edu/community-input. The Editorial Board hopes committee chair Abdul Omari and his 22 colleagues will indulge our preference for this page’s forum as we offer ours. Here are our answers to the questions they’ve posed:

What do you see as the challenges and opportunities facing the next president? The University of Minnesota has a vital role to play in helping Minnesota prosper in the 2020s. That’s a decade in which the state is forecast to experience little or no growth in its working-age population. An insufficient supply of talent threatens to stall the state’s economy.

The next university president should make it his or her mission to help change that forecast. He or she can advance strategies for recruiting more top-notch students and faculty, from Minnesota and around the world. He or she can put more focus on the university’s research mission, with an emphasis on discoveries that can generate new Minnesota industries, advance existing ones and make them talent magnets in their own right. And he or she can deploy university resources in ways that help more Minnesotans live up to their full economic potential.

Seizing those opportunities will require overcoming what has been a persistent point of contention through several decades — the desire of many Minnesotans, including some on the Board of Regents, for the university to function more like a low-budget state college rather than the world-class research university that Minnesota’s economy requires. Easing that tension in favor of upholding the university’s unique research mission must be part of the next president’s assignment.

What professional experience and qualifications must the successful candidate possess? A lively debate has already begun in some quarters about whether the next president must have a pedigree in academic leadership. Would a proven leader in business or politics serve as well, or better? Perhaps. But that question can wait. At this stage, presidential searchers would do well to cast a wide net.

It’s enough for now to say that a contender for this job should have already served successfully as the chief executive of a large and complex organization. He or she should have a track record of forging an organization-wide strategy and building consensus across multiple constituencies to get it implemented. He or she should have a history of a positive working relationship with a diverse governing board and of gaining the confidence of a faculty or similarly large professional staff. He or she should know how to assemble and maintain a high-caliber executive team. And he or she should have experience functioning with a high degree of public visibility and fiscal accountability.

What personal qualities must the next president have in order to be successful? At a basic level, the U president is in the sales business. Every day and in a variety of ways, he or she is expected to personally sell the university. Thus, a president should exhibit the traits of a top-notch marketer. He or she should be a gifted communicator who can project a compelling vision to a variety of audiences. An ability to make and maintain positive professional relationships is key. So is a commitment to racial and gender inclusion, which is essential to making the university the talent magnet Minnesota needs.

What are the most positive attributes of the university that the search firm should communicate to attract the right candidates? To the credit of President Kaler and his immediate predecessors, the U has an appealing story to tell potential candidates. Graduation and student-retention rates — considered key comparative indicators of academic quality — have climbed in the past two decades to levels that rival those of highly regarded private colleges. The U’s $2.3 billion endowment as of March 2018 is respectable among its peers and a sign of financial health. Significant facilities upgrades in recent years have better positioned it to compete for talent and research funding; in fiscal 2017, the U ranked ninth among U.S. public research universities in receipt of externally sponsored research grants.

Fortunately, the next president won’t be summoned to mend an ailing institution or shore up a mediocre one. Rather, he or she will be called upon to make a good university great. The right candidate will find that both a daunting and an appealing assignment.

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Post Bulletin, Sept. 27

UMR campus should evolve with students’ needs

New University of Minnesota Rochester Chancellor Lori Carrell probably caused a few gasps last week when she admitted that the existing plans for UMR’s 10-acre downtown campus might never come to fruition.

But we weren’t shocked. Indeed, anyone who’s paid attention to what’s been happening at UMR for the past decade shouldn’t be shocked, either, because UMR isn’t like other universities, and it has never aspired to be.

UMR grew out of a need for a greater presence for the University of Minnesota in the southeast, as well as the need for college graduates who are job-ready medical researchers or health professionals. Nowhere else in the nation do undergraduates pursue programs of study in which every class incorporates aspects of the health sciences. UMR is truly a one-of-a-kind university, and as the medical field evolves, so too must UMR.

So, while it is exciting to envision beautiful green spaces, dramatic architecture, fountains and other downtown-campus amenities that would provide great photo backdrops on freshman orientation day, the simple fact is that UMR has no need to emulate the traditional university campus. Its top priority — indeed, its only priority — should be to recognize the future needs of the health care industry and ensure that UMR students have the requisite facilities, technology and instruction.

If future growth at UMR warrants enough new construction to create a significant downtown campus, so be it — but there’s no reason to put the cart before the horse.

The simple fact is that we are in a new age of higher education, an age in which an internet-connected laptop can access more information than can be found in what was a state-of-the-art 10-story university library built 25 years ago. Today’s college students have a much different experience than did their parents. While some families still choose to have their college students live in ivy-covered dormitories and stroll to class along tree-lined sidewalks, we believe there’s a place for a new model of university, one where the “campus” is largely created by each individual student, based on their own needs and wants. A “virtual” campus, if you will.

The advantages to such a system are huge, with the biggest one being efficiency. Carrell rightly pointed out that colleges and universities across the country are dotted with aging, decaying buildings that are costly to maintain and even costlier to update in the effort to meet the needs of today’s students. “We’re trying to do it differently,” she said.

That “different” approach includes a willingness to admit that plans created less than five years ago are already outdated, as well as an unwillingness to commit to a building program merely because valuable land is ready and waiting for new structures.

The easier, higher-profile approach would be to strike while the iron is hot in construction-crazy downtown Rochester, to raise new residence halls and academic buildings now and hope that future enrollment justifies an expanded UMR footprint.

UMR isn’t taking the easy approach.

We commend Carrell for her honesty and applaud the path UMR is taking as it maps out its future in downtown Rochester. UMR, after all, is a grand experiment in higher education, so there is no reason to expect it to fit into the mold of other colleges and universities.

While we suspect that someday UMR will have a significant footprint in downtown Rochester, we won’t even hazard a guess as to what form it will take — other than to predict that it will serve students in ways that current legislators and university presidents have not yet dreamed of.

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The Free Press of Mankato, Sept. 27

Prison security: Legislature must approve more staffing

Why it matters: Two recent prison guard deaths highlight the need to hire more security personnel and guards.

The Minnesota Legislature apparently didn’t believe last year that Minnesota prisons needed more security personnel and guards. We hope the recent tragic deaths of two guards killed in altercations with prison inmates will now get the Legislature’s attention.

It’s a troubling trend, and the Republican Legislature had a chance to protect the safety of prison personnel had it approved the Department of Corrections’ request last year for 187 additional correction officer positions. The Legislature approved just 15 of the positions, according to a report in the Star Tribune.

The DOC has requested more officers for years to deal with a growing, and increasingly violent, prison population. The Minnesota prison population has spiked about 150 percent since the 1990s, with about 40 percent of the jump coming from 2000 to 2008, according to the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

A recent study by Pew Charitable Trust showed Minnesota to be an outlier in terms of prison population rate increases in the last 10 years. While the national average was down 11 percent, Minnesota’s rate was up 1 percent, and only 11 other states had an increase.

The tragedies, unfortunately, should put an exclamation point on the request for more corrections officers. Officer Joe Parise died on duty at Oak Park Heights prison after helping another guard who was being attacked by an inmate. He died of a medical emergency after helping.

Corrections officer Joseph Gomm, 45, was killed at the hands of a prisoner working in a shop area. Gomm was beaten with a hammer and stabbed with a knife.

A month before Gomm’s death, another guard at Oak Park Heights was slashed by an inmate with a razor. In March, 10 officers were injured in two fights that broke out at the prison.

Gomm’s family members told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that the officer feared for his life every day he went to work. Officers have been aware of the safety risk for some time.

Unions representing the inmates say the Department of Corrections should also reinstitute tougher penalties for those inmates who attack officers. In the past, inmates were automatically confined to segregated sections for 90 days after assaulting a guard or other personnel. That was recently changed to a punitive sentence and then the opportunity for a four-step program to regain privileges.

It seems a move back to tougher disciplinary sentences is reasonable.

The Legislature can prevent the risk of further violence against guards by approving the reasonable request of the Department of Corrections to keep enough corrections personnel on hand to protect its guards and fulfill the mission of the prisons to protect society and rehabilitate inmates when appropriate.

Guard safety, as we have seen, must be taken seriously. It is a life-or-death situation.

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