Christmas came early for University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel, as the university’s Board of Regents voted 9 to 3 earlier this month to approve a conflict management plan paving the way for Gabel to join the board of directors of Securian Financial. The move would earn her an additional $130,000 per year, on top of the $1 million she is set to make at her day job as university president.
The problem? Securian also happens to have some $1 billion of business with the university as one of its vendors, hence the call for a conflict management plan — albeit one drafted not by an independent firm, but primarily by members of the president’s own staff.
But this isn’t even the first time this year that the board has been mired in questions of what might constitute an undue conflict of interest. Last summer, members disagreed whether it was appropriate for Gabel to offer the Duluth campus interim chancellor position — and its $250,000 salary — to former Regent David McMillan. Dissenters questioned the optics of the truncated search process juxtaposed against McMillan’s support the previous year for Gabel’s new compensation package.
Debating whether an apparent conflict is palatable enough to pass muster misses the forest for the trees. A regent’s duty is to maintain the public trust by keeping the interests of the public foremost in every decision and avoiding even the appearance of a conflict. Boards must act as fiduciaries that ensure responsible stewardship of tuition and taxpayer dollars.
Yet according to the latest data from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s “How Colleges Spend Money” project, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus spends over $6,800 per student on administration, $1,700 more than the average of its peers, while charging nearly $3,000 more in tuition — for roughly the same graduation rates. This underscores the need for the board to go out of its way to make financial decisions that are above reproach.
In Minnesota, the Legislature, rather than the governor, is responsible for selecting members of public university boards, which it is poised to do again next session. Lawmakers have compelling reasons to choose trustees who will perform their duties with scrupulous attention to public trust.
This article originally appeared in the StarTribune on December 29, 2022. Read it here.