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Political and Reputational Capital - Do We Have Any Left?

Many faculty members are concerned with the state of the university with respect to these matters...

A few quotes from a recent meeting of the Senate Committee on Finance and Planning (February 2, 2010) are telling:

Professor Luepker convened the meeting at 2:05 and welcomed Vice President Himle and Associate Vice Presidents Klatt and Peterson to discuss risk and political capital. He explained that the topic came up after a conversation with Vice President O'Brien about light-rail transit, which moved into a discussion of risk and political capital.

Vice President Himle said this was an excellent topic to discuss so all would understand it. She said she approaches the issue from the standpoint of the University having a reservoir of reputational capital (which could be political, with the public, or divided more finely). They do nothing in University Relations without thinking about reputational capital.

Mr. Driscoll recalled that what came up in the earlier discussion was the ability of the University (or not) to manage the public perception about the differences between the University and the Metropolitan Council. The Council ran circles around the University and the University's response was slow in coming.

Vice President Himle returned to the case of light-rail transit and the University's dispute with the Metropolitan Council. The Met Council's message was a great one: The community wants a train and the Council's task was to build it on time and under budget. The University's response was complex and the topic of many internal discussions. It is that complexity that makes it difficult for the University's position to be persuasive to a public that has already concluded that it wants the train.

[VP Himle] She said people do not know the University.

People from the academic ranks must know legislators personally; the University needs a legislative army, individuals who can call on every legislator. One problem, she said, is that alumni/ae now in positions to help are those in their 40s and 50s--people who did not have a good experience at the University. They have not updated the tape from the 1970s.

...the question is how well University people know their legislators, and whether they can call legislators if they make a bad decision about the University. Ms. Peterson agreed that personal contact makes the difference. People can send letters and emails; what is important is the next step, having coffee with a legislator. The capacity is there but the University has not taken that next step.

There are clearly some problems.

Claiming to be running a grass-roots lobbying operation by ginning up fake letters of support and other activities is not going to work. This is what the U admin currently does. As Shania Twain put it: "That don't impress me much."

Whining that the actions of our leaders are misperceived is not going to work either. In fact our administration has made serious mistakes on light rail strategy, on conflict of interest management, and in the area of medical education. Facing facts, admitting that mistakes were made AND fixing them is in everyone's best interest.

Our leaders should be intelligent enough - and have some general ethical principles well in hand - to answer directly questions about what is going on at the U. Shoving Dan Wolter or someone else out in the headlights to "deal with it" is not going to work in the long run. This kind of behavior makes the University leadership look weak and ineffectual. Somewhat surprisingly, Athletic Director Joel Maturi seems to be able to think very well on his feet and give immediate responses to the press and others. This seems to be because he has developed some general principles about what is right and sticks to them. And I say this as someone who is not a big fan of the athletics department. I've had direct responses to questions from Joel literally in the middle of the night. The Morrill Hall gang could take lessons from Mr. Maturi in the public relations area.

Do you think that Mark Yudof, Biddy Martin, or Gordon Gee has each of their tweets vetted by a PR person before posting?

Leadership matters. Time for a change?

For the most recent example of a very bad decision that destroys the U's reputational capital with the public, please see the fiasco involving the use of plastic pelvic models, instead of the real thing, for the training of medical students in order to save money.

Ridiculous and almost laughable. If the U is truly interested in maximizing reputational capital, please reverse this decision immediately. To claim to not have the money to do real medicine while using it for so-called alternative medicine is simply absurd.

For more information and an illustration of how this action has harmed us, please see:

University of Minnesota Medical School: Changes Pelvic Exam Lesson For Medical Students

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