Others’ opinion: What the University of Minnesota needs from its next president

Published 7:58 am Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

The committee that will advise the Board of Regents as it hires a new University of Minnesota president has begun its work as it should: It’s doing a lot of listening. At seven sessions over nine days on the university’s five campuses, scores of stakeholders described the challenges that await retiring President Eric Kaler’s successor and the traits he or she will need to successfully meet them.

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Listening is the proper predicate to the next step. A consensus needs to come quickly about the university’s leadership needs. The search advisory committee will be better able to craft and articulate such a consensus if it engages the U’s many constituencies now.

Comments are still being solicited at president-search.umn.edu/community-input. The Editorial Board hopes committee chair Abdul Omari and his 22 colleagues will indulge our preference for this page’s forum as we offer ours. Here are our answers to the questions they’ve posed:

What do you see as the challenges and opportunities facing the next president? The University of Minnesota has a vital role to play in helping Minnesota prosper in the 2020s. That’s a decade in which the state is forecast to experience little or no growth in its working-age population. An insufficient supply of talent threatens to stall the state’s economy.

The next university president should make it his or her mission to help change that forecast. He or she can advance strategies for recruiting more top-notch students and faculty, from Minnesota and around the world. He or she can put more focus on the university’s research mission, with an emphasis on discoveries that can generate new Minnesota industries, advance existing ones and make them talent magnets in their own right. And he or she can deploy university resources in ways that help more Minnesotans live up to their full economic potential.

Seizing those opportunities will require overcoming what has been a persistent point of contention through several decades — the desire of many Minnesotans, including some on the Board of Regents, for the university to function more like a low-budget state college rather than the world-class research university that Minnesota’s economy requires. Easing that tension in favor of upholding the university’s unique research mission must be part of the next president’s assignment.

What professional experience and qualifications must the successful candidate possess? A lively debate has already begun in some quarters about whether the next president must have a pedigree in academic leadership. Would a proven leader in business or politics serve as well, or better? Perhaps. But that question can wait. At this stage, presidential searchers would do well to cast a wide net.

It’s enough for now to say that a contender for this job should have already served successfully as the chief executive of a large and complex organization. He or she should have a track record of forging an organization-wide strategy and building consensus across multiple constituencies to get it implemented. He or she should have a history of a positive working relationship with a diverse governing board and of gaining the confidence of a faculty or similarly large professional staff. He or she should know how to assemble and maintain a high-caliber executive team. And he or she should have experience functioning with a high degree of public visibility and fiscal accountability.

What personal qualities must the next president have in order to be successful? At a basic level, the U president is in the sales business. Every day and in a variety of ways, he or she is expected to personally sell the university. Thus, a president should exhibit the traits of a top-notch marketer. He or she should be a gifted communicator who can project a compelling vision to a variety of audiences. An ability to make and maintain positive professional relationships is key. So is a commitment to racial and gender inclusion, which is essential to making the university the talent magnet Minnesota needs.

What are the most positive attributes of the university that the search firm should communicate to attract the right candidates? To the credit of President Kaler and his immediate predecessors, the U has an appealing story to tell potential candidates. Graduation and student-retention rates — considered key comparative indicators of academic quality — have climbed in the past two decades to levels that rival those of highly regarded private colleges. The U’s $2.3 billion endowment as of March 2018 is respectable among its peers and a sign of financial health. Significant facilities upgrades in recent years have better positioned it to compete for talent and research funding; in fiscal 2017, the U ranked ninth among U.S. public research universities in receipt of externally sponsored research grants.

Fortunately, the next president won’t be summoned to mend an ailing institution or shore up a mediocre one. Rather, he or she will be called upon to make a good university great. The right candidate will find that both a daunting and an appealing assignment.