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Four finalists to be the University of Minnesota's next president will be named next week. They'll be vying to replace Jeffrey Ettinger, the U's interim president — a job status many college and university presidents may feel nowadays, regardless of their official title.

Especially after Elizabeth Magill and Claudine Gay got the gate from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, respectively, following their highly publicized — and highly criticized — congressional appearances answering questions about campus antisemitism. Their testimony — and testy exchanges with New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik (whose third degree vaulted her to first place to be No. 2 on the GOP's 2024 ticket, according to some oddsmakers) — highlighted America's widening divide over higher education.

This split transcends enduring concerns over college costs and increasingly reflects the value of higher education. And like most American chasms, this one is intensifying along partisan lines.

Overall, confidence in higher education has fallen to 36%, "sharply lower" than in 2015 (57%) and 2018 (48%), according to a Gallup poll from July — months before the Ivy League leaders were in the news. The numbers plunged particularly among Republicans in that eight-year span — down 37 percentage points, from 56% to 19% expressing a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in higher education. Comparatively, confidence among Democrats also declined, but much less on a much-higher base, from 68% in 2015 to 59% in 2023.

Ideological divides are even more apparent in a series of queries from a December poll from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Asked whether "Colleges are a positive influence on their students' overall thinking," 87% of self-described liberals said "yes," compared to only half of self-described conservatives. Asked if "College is a good or great benefit to becoming a great thinker," 73% of liberals agreed, compared to 55% of conservatives. It gets starker: "Colleges do a very good or great job educating students" — 51% of liberals say so, but only 31% of conservatives. And whether "Colleges do a very good or great job developing a well-informed citizenry," only 40% of liberals and 24% of conservatives agree.

Across 43 questions the Chronicle asked, "political ideology was the starkest difference the most times" — 28 times, to be exact, well beyond race (nine instances), income (three), gender (two) and education (one).

"Concerns on the right are typically about the ideas of how college prepares people or what colleges are preparing for; on the left, it's mostly concerns about price and student-debt levels," said Eric Kelderman, a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education (and former U grad student).

"The belief in the degree remains strong, but the belief in the value of the institution is faltering," said Kelderman, who added that "It creates an opportunity for state lawmakers and other folks who may already have a negative view of higher education to sort of tighten the squeeze."

That's the environment nearly any college president — including the U's new leader — will face. Additional challenges, Ettinger said during a recent meeting with the Star Tribune Editorial Board, have driven his top priorities: public outreach, health care partnerships (including consequential conversations with Fairview and other state stakeholders), financial stewardship (always a public concern, but perhaps especially at a time of increased scrutiny of higher education) and public safety (on campus and in nearby neighborhoods, which are often under different jurisdictions).

And more recently, Ettinger added, how contention over institutional positions on Mideast strife, which along with other controversies is growing like kudzu on Ivy League campuses and beyond, including the U.

The university has handled it relatively well, due in part to Ettinger's leadership, as well as the experience in defusing another campus contretemps: Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett's long-planned appearance at the U, which occurred just nine days after the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks in Israel.

As soon as Ettinger took his interim gig, he recalled, he was keen on making sure Coney Barrett's appearance "did not become a flash point or a problem." Petitions to disinvite her came from those who said "'She was part of a group that took away our rights, so why should we give her the right to speak?' — that kind of thing," Ettinger said.

Law school students and the community have benefited from appearances by Supreme Court justices spanning the ideological spectrum, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Sonia Sotomayor to Elena Kagan to John Roberts to Antonin Scalia, Ettinger said. Hosting these events, he added, "just typifies what you should be doing on a campus, which is providing a forum of different points of view."

A protest Ettinger described as "pretty robust" occurred outside the Coney Barrett event. "We took steps to make sure that we would honor protests but that the event would proceed." And that, he added, is "where you get into this whole question of rights. The 3,000 people who attended the event and have attended in many cases past events, to me have a right to listen and make up their own minds."

It's important, Ettinger said, "that the university is an arena for thought and for different points of view and tries not to be a participant."

That ethos held for the eruption of protests and counter-protests related to the Israel-Hamas war. "You want all of your students and staff and faculty to feel welcome on campus, to not feel because of their background that 'I don't belong here, somebody's going to create a hostile environment for me here.' You're balancing that against the First Amendment and people's right to opinion and so forth."

We "have been kind of thrust into that situation, as were those [Harvard, Penn, MIT] presidents. … Where do you draw the line?" The U, Ettinger said, agreed with some other institutions "that if you are calling for the genocide of a people" that "is improper and that's something that does violate our codes." (Separately, in January the U.S. Department of Education said the U is one of 99 schools being investigated "for discrimination involving shared ancestry" — specifically for antisemitism.)

The interim president presiding over seemingly permanent problems spent most of the meeting with Editorial Board members discussing institutional, political and societal approaches to solving them. A key test will be the upcoming legislative session, where lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz will work on a bonding bill that's key to the U. Regarding that, Ettinger said he'll stress a "partnership mentality," rhetorically asking: "Shouldn't we make investments in things together in things that matter?"

And the university clearly matters, he suggested, describing it as "just an incredible array of people and programs and facilities and mission and research that's really remarkable."

Ettinger added a point that should be considered noncontroversial among all Minnesotans. "The University of Minnesota System," he said, "is a state treasure."