The type of accusations and lawsuits that once targeted the University of Michigan’s policies in publicizing information about presidential searches are now being pointed at the University of Minnesota.
Several Minnesota newspapers have sued the University of Minnesota, stating that it violated the state’s Open Meetings Law during a presidential search last fall. The search concluded by promoting then-interim president Robert Bruininks to the top job in November.
The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in December, and Hennepin County District Court Judge Pamela Alexander heard arguments in her courtroom last week.
At the beginning of November, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents voted not to follow the Open Meetings Law, keeping search meetings private until the selection of a president.
Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson said the regents had previously announced they had five or six finalists whom they wanted to interview privately.
“We geared up to try and get a temporary restraining order, to block them from interviewing without complying with the law,” Anfinson said. “Under both our Open Records Law and our Open Meetings Law in Minnesota, it’s pretty clear that the regents should have conducted their final search far more publicly.”
According to Minnesota’s Data Practices Act, if a body is interviewing candidates for a public employee position, those candidates immediately become finalists and therefore their names must be publicized. In addition, Minnesota’s Open Meetings Law states such interviews must be open to the public.
But the University of Minnesota has said that it has constitutional autonomy from the state legislature regarding the internal matters and operations of the school.
“There are certain universities … that have constitutional autonomy from certain kinds of interference with their operations from the state legislatures,” University of Minnesota Counsel Mark Rotenberg said. “If the Board of Regents decide they want to build a round building for 10 million dollars, the state legislature cannot say ‘no we want a square building for 13 million dollars.'”
While Anfinson said he believes the University of Minnesota has a good argument, he added that the state constitutional provision that grants them autonomy is open to many different interpretations. The plaintiff’s interpretation states that in a situation like the presidential search, the legislature can intervene and tell the University how to proceed, Anfinson said.
“The constitution says the legislature cannot tell the University who to pick,” he said. “That power is given to the regents, but the process of selection within reason, the legislature can dictate.”
As evidence in its favor, the school points to a 1999 Michigan State Supreme Court ruling that gave state universities broad discretion in how they could follow Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. The case centered on a Michigan State University presidential search.
The conduct of the University of Michigan was also questioned after the presidential searches of 1988 and 1996, which hired James Duderstadt and Lee Bollinger, respectively.
In a 1993 state Supreme Court decision on a lawsuit that newspapers filed against the University after the Duderstadt search, the court ruled that the University had violated the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act. As a result, four finalists in the 1996 search were interviewed at public meetings. The 2002 search for current President Mary Sue Coleman was not subject to such scrutiny because of the 1999 decision.
Some speculate whether the Minnesota ruling could have any bearing on the Michigan State Supreme Court revisiting its 1999 decision, if the Minnesota State Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs.
Detroit Free Press attorney Herschel Fink said since the information acts are exclusively state laws, Minnesota’s ruling would not directly have a bearing on Michigan. But he added that over a period of time, if the court becomes more liberal and another opportunity arises, news agencies could possibly ask the court to reconsider its decision.
“I don’t see there being a different result at this time because, if anything, the court is more conservative,” Fink said.
University of Michigan spokeswoman Julie Peterson said such a decision in Minnesota could have very little effect here. She added that as long as Michigan universities follow the constitution, they will be in compliance.
“It’s pretty far-reached to think that our Michigan Supreme Court would relook that issue,” Peterson said. “It would be a very indirect impact if any at all.”