Almost everyone agrees on one thing: The next president of the University of Minnesota shouldn't be too thin-skinned.
Officially, the search has yet to begin for a successor to Eric Kaler, who is stepping down in 2019 after eight years as president.
But since Kaler's announcement July 13, members of the U's Board of Regents have started drawing up their wish lists for the next leader of the state's flagship public university. The ability to withstand public criticism and second-guessing is practically part of the job description for someone who wants to guide Minnesota's academic, research and economic powerhouse.
"They better have very, very tough skin, strong body armor and the ability to live in a world of controversy," said Dean Johnson, a member of the Board of Regents.
The leader of a private university once joked that presidential searches are "like looking for God on a good day."
To David McMillan, the board chairman, it's not quite that daunting. But he admits that the U, with its five campuses, close to 70,000 students and nearly $4 billion annual budget, is looking for someone to take on a "herculean challenge."
Among other things, he and other regents say they want a president who's a bold visionary, a scholar, a skilled manager and a savvy politician who can navigate the "changing landscape" of higher education — all while in the public glare.
No matter who gets the job, McMillan said, "there's always going to be a lot of people who think … you got it all wrong." But that simply comes with the territory of running the U.
Inspiring and grueling
Those who have held the U's highest office say it can be both an exhilarating and exhausting experience.
"It's inspiring and at certain times grueling," said Nils Hasselmo, 87, who was U president from 1988 to 1997 and now lives in Tucson, Ariz. "You have to be pretty determined about what it is you want to do because all of your decisions, and especially the really important decisions, are not always necessarily met with a standing ovation."
One of the challenges is that there are so many "constituencies" to please, said Ken Keller, who was president from 1985 to 1988 and is now a visiting professor at the U. The president, he said, must work with lawmakers, business leaders, alumni, donors and Gophers fans, not to mention tens of thousands of students and employees — and the 12 people on the board of regents.
"People often say, 'Is it a fun job?' " said Keller. "This isn't a fun job. But it's an important one."
Mark Yudof, who was president from 1997 to 2002, said it could be a strain just trying to keep up with all the events demanding his attention. "I remember one time I counted that there were 14 consecutive meals that I didn't eat at home," he said, adding that he was "hell bent" to go to as many Gophers athletic events as possible.
"It's a very busy job," said Yudof, 73, who retired as president of the University of California in 2013. "You need someone that has some energy and stamina."
To Johnson, a former legislator from Willmar, one of the biggest jobs for any new president is winning the trust of state lawmakers, who control the U's state funding. "That new president must be able to engage and build relationships on both sides of the political aisle," he said.
If anything, the new president will need extraordinary persuasive skills, said Robert Bruininks, who preceded Kaler as president from 2002 to 2011. He said he fears that the mission of the university will falter without more state support, and that politicians — and the public — need to be reminded what's at stake.
"Minnesota has one of the best … universities in the world, and that's a big deal," said Bruininks. "It's something we need to treasure and take very seriously."
Big changes ahead?
At this point, it's too soon to know if the regents are looking for any big changes from the next president. The board hasn't had a chance to meet since Kaler's announcement, said McMillan, the board chair.
Michael Hsu, a regent since 2015, has said he's hoping for someone who will shake up the "status quo," especially in terms of controlling costs.
But some regents argue that the U, in many ways, is doing better than ever — in graduation rates, fundraising, research dollars and other measures — and that the next president should build on its successes.
"For me, I want to find somebody who can do as good a job as Eric Kaler has done," said Linda Cohen, a regent from Minnetonka, who has served on the board since 2007.
Johnson agrees. "We've had our missteps, our scandals, but for the most part [they] are getting resolved," he said.
He said Kaler, who often called it his "dream job" to lead the university, will be leaving it in a better place.
"It's not a job, it is a passion and a vocation for him," said Johnson. As a university president, he added, "that's a great attribute to have."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384
The U By the numbers
The next president will lead one of the biggest institutions in the state.
20,389 faculty and staff
$625,250 President Eric Kaler’s base salary in 2017
$3.8 billion annual systemwide budget
Source: University of Minnesota