U of M Presidential Searches and Watergate

Watergate concluded in 1974 with Richard Nixon’s resignation.  A year later, in 1975, a scholar by the name of Warren Bennis wrote a Watergate-inspired essay with the fun name, “Meet Me in Macy’s Window.”

Forty-four years later, which is to say last month, the essay’s pertinence to the University of Minnesota’s recently completed presidential search is perfect.

Bennis, who died in 2014 at age 89, was a great organizational theorist; one of the few whose theories I’ve ever been able to retain for more than ten minutes at a time.  Meaning, he wrote exceptionally well, often with humor.  He also was a distinguished practitioner, having served as president of the University of Cincinnati between 1971 and 1979.

Bennis made it clear in “Macy’s Window” that he very much believed in Woodrow Wilson’s “open covenants openly arrived at.”  But he also recognized that the explosion of open-meeting and “sunshine laws” then emerging across the country, having been provoked by Watergate, inevitably would lead to unintended consequences.  This was the case, he wrote, because while secrecy is one thing, confidentiality is quite another, and that, “No organization can function effectively without certain degrees of confidentiality in the proposals, steps, and discussions leading up to its decisions.”

He similarly wrote about how “complete candor is a false solution to a real problem – that of lack of trust.”

As one might have surmised, I’m of the mind that those with ultimate responsibility for choosing presidents of hyper-demanding institutions such as the University of Minnesota – which is to say the Board of Regents – ought to be granted wide latitude in keeping their deliberations confidential.  Though I likewise recognize that in the approaching-half-century since the Watergate, expectations have grown that virtually all public business ought to be conducted conspicuously.

Generally, this does not concern me.  As a rule, we should, in fact, err on the side of openness.  But as with all policy choices, we are fooling ourselves if we don’t believe there are prices to be paid for taking one route over another.  Or in this instance, if we don’t believe there are losses when public officials can’t keep some matters hyper-quiet throughout.

The prime Minnesota example of this involves electing U of M presidents.  Some number of presidents of other major institutions doubtless opt not to apply for fear of having their names divulged during lengthy search processes, as that likely would dangerously displease faculty, governing board members, and others on their home campuses.  This understandable reluctance causes Minnesota regents to lose out in considering many potentially superb candidates.

Of course, some number of sitting presidents do become candidates.  Yet they tend to drop out before final slates are publicly announced if they’re not reasonably confident of getting the job.  Once again regents are forced to choose from among smaller pools.

Dynamics like these were at play again in December, leaving Joan Gabel as the one and only finalist to succeed Eric Kaler as president.  Who himself was the one and only finalist to succeed Bob Bruininks in 2011.  Who was the one and only finalist to succeed Mark Yudoff in 2002.  Who was the one and only finalist to succeed Nils Hasselmo in 1997.  Who was the one and only finalist to succeed Ken Keller in 1988.  Who was the one and only finalist to succeed C. Peter Magrath in 1985.  Situations and precise reasons were different each time, but you get the idea.

Gabel is currently a provost (University of South Caroline), as was Kaler (Stony Brook University) when he was elected.  Meaning, they risked much less in embarrassment and worse if it came to be publicly known back home they came in second or worse elsewhere.

What needs to be said about Gabel is what I’ve said about several of her predecessors.  She is a person of impressive accomplishment and talent, and she may well prove to be an exceptional leader for the university.  As a taxpayer, an alumnus, and as someone who worked for Peter Magrath when he was president, I very much hope that’s the case.  I wish her great things.

But given how expectations of openness compel understandably cautious sitting presidents to drop out of searches before final decisions are made – if they’re gamblers enough to apply in the first place – it’s not surprising that finalists for this most recent U of M search, once again, comprised a field of one.