Setting Up a New President for Success: Shared Governance in Action at the University of Minnesota

An interview with Mark Bee, Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and Chair of the University Senate and Faculty Senate Consultative Committees at the University of Minnesota.

In “Five Things You Should Know About College Presidents,” posted last week, guest contributor Jordan Gonzales discussed the growing popularity of closed search processes for university leaders. This of course holds true for Nebraska – in 2016, the Nebraska legislature passed LB 1109, allowing for an “enhanced public scrutiny process” to be used in selecting the NU system president and the various campus chancellors. This process allows for the designation of only one priority candidate for these positions, rather than announcing a number of finalists in the search process. This was done despite strong opposition from the UNL faculty senate and advocates for transparency in governance.

When I talk with faculty and administrator colleagues at UNL about our closed search processes, including the ones that recently resulted in the hiring of UNL Chancellor Rodney Bennett and the selection of Dr. Jeffrey Gold as the priority candidate and presumed soon-to-be-announced President of the NU system, there is a general sentiment that “this is just how things are done.” However, as Jordan noted in his description of open and closed searches in Five Things You Should Know, there are still institutions that conduct open searches. In fact, one of our BIG10 peers, the University of Minnesota, just concluded an open search for their new president.

But how does this work? How does a BIG10 university conduct a public, open search process for a high-level leader like a system president? I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mark Bee, Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and Chair of the University Senate and Faculty Senate Consultative Committees at the University of Minnesota, to discuss how their most recent open search process went and the role of the faculty in selecting the university president. Below is a summary of our conversation, edited for length and focus.

Niehaus: UMN has a pretty interesting governance structure. Can you tell me more about your various Senates?

Bee: We have an umbrella Senate called the University Senate that is made up of four separate constituent groups. There is a Senate for faculty, one for students, one for civil service employees, and one for professional and administrative employees. Then we all come together as a University Senate.

Within the Faculty Senate we have a Faculty Consultative Committee, whose role is to consult with the administration on anything and everything. It also functions as the executive committee of the Faculty Senate. The chair role of the FCC is a 3-year term. If you are elected you spend a year as the vice chair, then a year as chair, then a year as the past chair. This year I am the chair of the FCC, which means I also chair the University Senate Consultative Committee.

Niehaus: How did you get involved in shared governance at UMN?

Bee: Well, it will sound like I am kidding, but in my college when it is time for elections to the Faculty Senate, they send out a ballot with the names of every eligible faculty member in the college in alphabetical order – and I’m pretty early on in the list! So I got elected and spent three years as a Senator in the Faculty Senate. Towards the end of my term the University President at that time made a surprise announcement that they were going to close the only daycare on campus. That of course sparked outrage from a lot of groups, including the Faculty Senate.

It just so happened that my daughter was in that daycare and had become friends with another little girl whose mother was also a faculty Senator and on the FCC – the executive committee of the Faculty senate. So she and I started coordinating about this whole daycare closure, and then suddenly I get an email from her saying, hey, would you stand for election to the FCC? Now I’ve been on the FCC since 2019, spent three years as a regular FCC member, and then was nominated to stand for election to the vice chair role.

To their credit, the administration reversed course and actually ended up building a second daycare on campus. But that’s how I got involved in all of this – my name starts with the letter B and my daughter was in the same classroom as another committee member’s daughter.

Niehaus: As someone who has had two kids go through University daycare centers, I am completely unsurprised by this! But of course now I want to hear more about your recent search for a new university president. How have you been involved in that search as FCC chair?

Bee: What the Board has done in the past, and what they did this time, was establish what they called the Presidential Search Advisory Committee – the PSAC. State law in Minnesota appoints the Board of Regents as the search committee, but they established the PSAC and gave that committee, along with an outside consulting firm, the authority of creating the candidate pool and then winnowing it down to four potential finalists.

As the PSAC was forming, the FCC sent a letter to the Board of Regents shamelessly advocating for a strong voice for faculty on that committee. We made the case that it should be at least 50% faculty, and we made some suggestions about the types of faculty who should be on that committee: people from shared governance and faculty whose credentials and reputation would carry some weight. In particular we advocated for Regents Professors, the highest rank of faculty at the University of Minnesota, to be on the committee. In the end the committee was 7 faculty members out of 24 total, so about a third.

The PSAC was co-chaired by a board member and a faculty member, who was both a Regents Professor and a former member of the FCC. The PSAC also included both the FCC immediate past chair and current vice chair, along with a representative from the Staff Senate Consultative Committee and a member of the Student Senate Consultative Committee. One of the regents on the PSAC was also a former student who was heavily involved in the Student Senate. So we felt pretty good about that; a good number of the folks on the PSAC had experience with our shared governance structure.

Niehaus: Why was it so important for you to have strong faculty representation on the PSAC?

Bee: The cornerstone of our argument was that as an institution of higher learning, we have a very specific mission, and faculty are on the front line of that mission. We don’t do it alone; everybody should work to support the mission. But we are the creative engines that move the mission forward.

We are also the most constant of all constituents. We are not the largest constituent group, and our students have often made the case that they are the biggest constituent group and so should have the biggest say. But you know, they are here for 4 years. We are here for 30. Faculty have a longer arc of the institution’s mission and history, and that is important to consider.

Niehaus: How else were faculty involved in the search?

Bee: Right around the time the PSAC was being formed we wrote another letter to that committee explaining the types of qualities we sought in a presidential candidate – here’s what we think you should look for. We advocated for someone who believed in shared governance, and that actually made it into the 27-page job profile. We also had a big resolution last year calling on the administration to reinvest in the workforce, and it seemed clear to us that some language in the profile was inspired by language in the resolution. So we were reasonably pleased. We felt like we had a voice and it was being heard.

In addition to the letter, the PSAC went around to every campus for listening sessions. They wanted to hear from the community what the community wanted in a new President. I attended most of those sessions on the Twin Cities campus, and many of the things I heard people say ended up in the position profile.

The chair and vice chair of the PSAC, and maybe one or two other members, also came to a meeting of the executive committee of the University Senate to hear from us and to hear our views about shared governance. Separately from that, the chair and vice chair of the PSAC met with me individually to hear what I thought the main issues were. Plus, this had already been in the works, but our Board of Regents sponsors a luncheon for the Senate Consultative Committee. They had us all spread out with two Regents and a couple of committee members at each table. They had discussion prompts and one of those was about the presidential search.

So as the Chair of the Executive Committees of both the University and Faculty Senates, I felt like there were a lot of opportunities for me to share either my views or to have people with common views share theirs. And in the end, it didn’t feel performative. It felt more genuine. Things we were saying were showing up in the search profile.

Niehaus: So once the candidates were recommended to the Board by the PSAC, how did the process look, particularly given that it was an open search process?

Bee: Because of public meeting laws the Board has to have public meetings to discuss the candidates. It is even on a YouTube livestream. So they had a meeting where they considered four finalists that had been recommended to them, and they went through all of the positive things about each one, but without naming anyone publicly at this point. During the meeting the discussion was entirely in terms of Candidate A, Candidate B, and so on. They did a dot exercise where they put up butcher block paper on the wall for each candidate, and each Board member got two dots they could put up to select their top two candidates. There wasn’t much support for one of the candidates, so the Board decided not to consider them any further and to move forward with three finalists.

Next, they invited the three finalists to campus, and each candidate visited all five of our system campuses. There were open listening sessions and public forums where the candidates would give a talk and then there would be 30 to 45 minutes of Q&A. Those were all moderated, but they did take questions from the audience and online in advance. The candidates got mostly the same types of questions: Tell us about your views on academic freedom. Tell us how you work with labor unions. Tell us how you work with teams. Tell us how you build strategic vision. Those sorts of questions. All of the candidates’ CVs were publicly available. Then the board had an open feedback form where people could give feedback on all of the candidates.

One additional touch point during the campus visits was an open forum with each candidate and the senior leadership team – basically all of the Vice Presidents and me as the Chair of the Senate Consultative Committee. The candidates got to hear from each of us about what issues we were dealing with, what’s happening on campus. And so that was an additional and pretty high-level touch point for faculty. I think it speaks to the fact that our administration is not doing things behind closed doors and excluding faculty.

Ultimately, when it came down to the final decision, seven board members chose one candidate and five members chose a second; nobody chose the third. They had some more discussion and eventually coalesced around a unanimous vote in support of the person we hired.

Niehaus: How do you think the open search process worked?

Bee: The Board really embraced the open part, and I think they did a good job with it.

For some context, in our last search we had three finalists, but two refused to be named publicly – so it was essentially a closed search. There was one finalist and she got the job.

For this search they told all of the candidates up front, if you are a finalist it will be public. If you’re not okay with that, get out now. They tried to make it clear that this is how it works so that no one was surprised. And in the end, all three finalists who were selected by the Board agreed to be named publicly.

You’ll never know who didn’t apply because it was open, but you know, we’ll see how the next President does.

Niehaus: Do you think there were any benefits to the open search process?

Bee: Well, the University of Minnesota is a huge deal in the state, so we are constantly under the microscope. And over the last several years I think the public sentiment has been increasingly negative. But I get a sense there has been a shift in that, and that may ultimately be a very positive outcome from how this search was handled. The editorial board of our main newspaper here in the Twin Cities had taken a very anti-university view over the last several years, but they couldn’t say enough good things about the search process, the candidate, how great she was, how it was the right move for the university – so this could be a positive benefit.

It feels disingenuous not to have something really negative to say as a faculty leader about how our Board and administration interacted with university senate governance in this search, but I felt like there were lots of opportunities for the Board to listen. I never felt like I didn’t have the opportunity to provide input. I think it was really good for our own internal morale, and I think it sets up the new President for success in a really positive way. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have other gripes about other issues, but this isn’t one of them!