Why Eric Kaler’s Successor Likely Will Be a Rookie

The Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota appointed a committee last week to lead the search for a new president, as current president Eric Kaler will step down next year.  Nothing in the Star Tribune story about the committee was unconventional or unanticipated, including Regent Abdul Omari, chair of the committee, stressing “the importance of protecting the confidentiality of contenders for the job before they are identified as finalists to make sure strong candidates are not discouraged from applying.”

Quick, before going on:  Who was the last U of M president who was president of another college or university before becoming president of Minnesota’s flagship university?  What year was that?  And what’s the connection between these two pieces of information and Regent Omari’s imploration about confidentiality?

The last president who held a similar job at another institution of higher education was C. Peter Magrath, who assumed the presidency of the U of M in 1974 and served until 1984.  He had been president of Binghamton University from 1972 to 1974.  Which is to say, it has been 44 years since any University of Minnesota president wasn’t a presidential rookie when elected.

The fact that I worked for Peter here and in Binghamton and that he’s a great friend and mentor is personally important, although not pertinent to this story which has to do with how public universities have come to elect presidents.  Or, more precisely, it’s about the constrained pools from which presidents get picked.

Back at Binghamton, Peter was succeeded by Clifford Clark, then Lois DeFleur, and then Harvey Stenger, Jr.  Just like the five superb educators who followed Peter at Minnesota – Ken Keller, Mark Yudof, Nils Hasselmo, Bob Bruininks and Kaler – not one of his successors at Binghamton had previously held a college or university presidency.  That is, with the major exception of Peter succeeding himself earlier this decade when he was asked, in his late 70s, to take official charge again when a candidate as respected and effective couldn’t be found.

I would argue the largest reason why so many public university presidents across the country are first timers goes back to the Watergate era and the explosion in the mid-1970s of open meeting and sunshine laws, at all levels of government, which have made it risky, and therefore often unlikely for sitting presidents at excellent colleges and universities to seek similar jobs elsewhere.

More specifically, sitting presidents are acutely aware that if it comes to be known they have been turned down for a presidency at another place, virtually every home-campus constituency would quickly question their continuing dedication and commitment.  Some observers doubtless also would question their talent as well, wondering what flaws the other school had discovered but which they themselves had so far missed.  Their leadership and clout would be compromised. Hence, presidents either choose not to become candidates for new presidencies in the first place, or if they do, they tend to remove their names late in the process, before finalists are publicly revealed if they’re not reasonably confident they’ll be elected.

None of this is an argument against the general thrust for openness and sunshine in government going back to Nixon.  Nor is it any slam at first-time presidencies for no other reason than second and third ones presume a first.  Likewise recognized is that some people do their most consequential and brilliant work when they are younger and maybe more energetic and audacious.  Still, I would argue that the election of public university presidents is one area where open meeting and similar laws have not worked as well as they have in other spheres, as they effectively delete significant numbers of top-tier candidates.

Do I think it would be appropriate – which is to say, not a sin against democracy itself – if governing bodies for public universities were afforded greater discretion in exercising their fiduciary responsibilities by maintaining candidate confidentiality until selections are made, thereby not predictably scaring away many strong men and women?  I do – not that I expect this will come to be in any U of M presidential search anytime soon.

In lieu, all I modestly request is acknowledgment in purist circles that some quests for over-and-above openness can come with real costs.

This blog is an adaptation of a MinnPost commentary Mitch Pearlstein wrote in 2011 following Eric Kaler’s election as president of the University of Minnesota.