Minn. court shines light on presidential searches

MINNESOTA The next time the University of Minnesotasearches for a new president, the process will be more open than it was in a2002 presidential search because of a ruling by the state’s highest courtthat the university’s board of regents must comply with open-meetings andopen-records laws when searching for a university president.

In a 4-2decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court on July 15 ordered the public university’sboard of regents to reveal information about candidates interviewed during the2002 search. The Supreme Court upheld rulings in two lower courts.

Thedecision is a victory for The Minnesota Daily, a student newspaper, andfour commercial media organizations that demanded the board conduct the searchin the open. The regents announced they were “suspending” adherence tothe sate’s Open Meetings Law and Data Practices Act during the 2002 search whenseveral candidates refused to be interviewed if their identifies would notremain secret. 

Three days later, the board named then-interim president RobertBruininks as the only finalist and awarded him theposition.“We’re glad this case ended the way it did,”said Jake Weyer, editor in chief of The Minnesota Daily. “We didthis because of the importance of the position of president at the universityand the public’s right to know who is running for that position. This setsan important precedent at the university about how presidential searches will beconducted in the future.”

The university’s lawyers contended thatbecause the state constitution grants the board autonomy to govern theuniversity, the board was not required to comply with certain laws enacted bythe Legislature, including provisions of the open-meetings and open-recordslaws.

Justice Russell A. Anderson, writing for the court’s majority, wasnot persuaded by that argument.

“We are concerned that if adopted, theRegents’ arguments in favor of autonomy may know no discernable bounds,”Anderson wrote. 

The board also argued that it does not have to complywith the open-records law because it does not specifically reference universitypresidential search data and because it names only the university as a publicbody, not the board of regents. 

It also contended that the open-meetings law isnot applicable because the legislature did not expressly name the board as anentity subject to its requirements.

The court’s majority found thosearguments to be unpersuasive. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed withthe Supreme Court, the Student Press Law Center and the Reporters Committee forthe Freedom of the Press argued that university presidential searches should beconducted as openly as possible.

“Open government laws allow oversightthat ensures public confidence in public institutions and prevents waste andcorruption. Considering all that the nation’s public universities accomplish,they do not seem to be suffering from this oversight, nor is the quality ofuniversity presidents suffering,” the brief stated.

This rulingis the most recent involving access to presidential searches at publicuniversities.

SEE: StarTribune Co., et al. v. Univ. of Minnesota Bd. of Regents, A03-124 (Minn.Sup. Ct., July 15, 2004)