Minn. court shines light on presidential searches

High court rejects university's argument that it did not have to comply with state access laws

MINNESOTA -- The next time the University of Minnesota searches for a new president, the process will be more open than it was in a 2002 presidential search because of a ruling by the state’s highest court that the university's board of regents must comply with open-meetings and open-records laws when searching for a university president.

In a 4-2 decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court on July 15 ordered the public university's board of regents to reveal information about candidates interviewed during the 2002 search. The Supreme Court upheld rulings in two lower courts.

The decision is a victory for The Minnesota Daily, a student newspaper, and four commercial media organizations that demanded the board conduct the search in the open. The regents announced they were "suspending" adherence to the sate's Open Meetings Law and Data Practices Act during the 2002 search when several candidates refused to be interviewed if their identifies would not remain secret. 

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

The university's lawyers contended that because the state constitution grants the board autonomy to govern the university, the board was not required to comply with certain laws enacted by the Legislature, including provisions of the open-meetings and open-records laws.

Justice Russell A. Anderson, writing for the court's majority, was not persuaded by that argument.

"We are concerned that if adopted, the Regents' arguments in favor of autonomy may know no discernable bounds," Anderson wrote. 

The board also argued that it does not have to comply with the open-records law because it does not specifically reference university presidential search data and because it names only the university as a public body, not the board of regents. 

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

The court's majority found those arguments to be unpersuasive. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the Supreme Court, the Student Press Law Center and the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press argued that university presidential searches should be conducted as openly as possible.

"Open government laws allow oversight that ensures public confidence in public institutions and prevents waste and corruption. Considering all that the nation's public universities accomplish, they do not seem to be suffering from this oversight, nor is the quality of university presidents suffering," the brief stated.

This ruling is the most recent involving access to presidential searches at public universities.

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

Fall 2004, reports