The Minneapolis School Board's identification of two impressive finalists to be publicly interviewed for the position of superintendent is a welcome illustration of accountability and transparency.
Hopefully, that example will not be lost on the University of Minnesota, which is currently going through the process of selecting its next leader, the president of the state's largest educational institution. The U has too often followed a practice clothed in secrecy and yielding a single "finalist," contrary to good public policy — and the law.
As the first portion of the 2023-24 academic year at the U draws near a close, there's been nary a peep about the search for a new president to replace Jeff Ettinger, the former Hormel CEO who was tapped by the Board of Regents last summer on an interim basis after former President Joan Gabel's abrupt departure earlier this year.
The only news has been the board's hiring three months ago of a suburban Chicago-based search firm, WittKieffer, at a hefty price tag of $200,000 plus expenses.
That would be a lot of money to end up with a single candidate. The expensive search ought to produce multiple finalists for the position. Indeed, state law virtually requires it, notwithstanding the institution's long-standing practice of craftily circumventing the obligation.
The regents' general pattern over the years, including in the selection of the overmatched Gabel five years ago, has been to conduct a secret search, come up with a single finalist, and anoint that individual as president as a fait accompli with no real public oversight or input.
This pattern was reflected in the selection of Gabel's two immediate predecessors — Eric Kaler and Robert Bruininks. Both emerged from a process shielded from the public as the lone "finalist" presented to the public, despite complaints from faculty and litigation reaching the state Supreme Court admonishing the lone-finalist practice. Others before them were chosen through a similarly secretive scenario.
That's not how the process works elsewhere, or should work here. Public bodies in Minnesota are required under the state Government Data Practices Act, one of the state "sunshine laws," to publicly identify any "finalist" for a high-level leadership position. The statute defines "finalist" as a person chosen to be interviewed by the governing body.
Most entities follow the law, ranging from counties to municipalities to school boards, as exemplified by the Minneapolis Public Schools, and including other publicly funded college campuses throughout the state.
But not at the U, where the regents have, with rare exceptions involving token runner-up candidates, circumvented the act by announcing a lone "finalist" chosen by the board and subjected to a perfunctory public interview session, which is as theatrical as a one-candidate debate or a professional wrestling match.
There are strong reasons for the "sunshine" provision in state law. It allows the public, which is footing the bill for the hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars underwriting the selection process, to see how its money is being spent.
Of even greater significance, by permitting members the public to know who is seeking the position in question, it enables them to weigh in with reactions and comments that might bolster particular candidates or, more importantly, sound warning alarms over shortcomings. That procedure might have sent flares about Gable's inadequacies, which soon became apparent once she assumed the position and persisted right up to her clandestine abandonment of it. Alas, it did not occur because she, like nearly all of her predecessors, was the product of a "single finalist" denouement.
One principal rationale is espoused by the regents and others who support evading "sunshine" in this contrived way, including this newspaper's Editorial Board in the past. The argument is that disclosing the identities of multiple candidates, rather than solely the de facto appointee, would deter many quality candidates from applying, especially those already in upper echelon positions in academia, because of concern that public disclosure of their interest would damage their standing at their current institutions. It might also, it's said, discourage prospective aspirants who fear the embarrassment of not being selected.
But these reasons are tenuous, at best. Many institutions of higher learning with similar "sunshine" laws, policies or protocols disclose multiple finalists, even all candidates. There is little evidence that those practices scare away quality applicants.
Indeed, the U's habitually secretive approach has hardly blessed the institution with consistently stellar leadership.
But even if the supporters of secrecy correctly surmise that abiding by the spirit of the law as well as the letter of it might repel some worthy candidates, so what? Or, as the "Bloody Mary" song from "South Pacific" goes: "Ain't that too damn bad."
This state's commitment to transparency in public affairs transcends the trepidations of academics seeking to enhance their lucrative employment arrangements at the expense of taxpayers. Openness should overcome opacity.
The U has the opportunity in the current presidential selection process to learn from its mistakes and refrain from its lone "finalist" ruse. The public ought to insist on a process that yields multiple final candidates for this singular and significant position.
The late justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Robert Jackson, once observed that he and his fellow high court justices are "not final because we are infallible; we're infallible only because we are final."
Hopefully, the Board of Regents will recognize its own fallibilities in past presidential selections and come up with more than a single "finalist" this time around.
If the Minneapolis school system can do it, why not the U?
Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities constitutional and employment law attorney.