The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota violated the Minnesota Open Meeting Law (OML) and the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (GDPA) when it secretly interviewed candidates to fill the post of university president. (See Star Tribune Co. v. University of Minnesota Board of Regents, 667 N.W.2d 447 (Minn. App. 2003).) The court of appeals affirmed a district court ruling that the Regents violated these laws and must disclose data on the candidates.
The Regents conducted closed meetings with selected candidates for the university presidency, citing the candidates' confidentiality concerns. The Minneapolis Star Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Minnesota Daily (the student newspaper at the university), as well as other media groups sought data on the unsuccessful candidates directly from the Board of Regents under the GDPA. The Regents refused to divulge the information. The media then sued and sought an order compelling disclosure. The media argued that the information must be disclosed under the GDPA, and that the Regents had violated the OML.
After losing at the district court level, the Regents, on appeal, again argued that the GDPA and the OML did not apply to their search for a university president. Finally, the Regents argued that the Minnesota Constitution precludes the application of both the GDPA and the OML to the university's and the Regents' efforts to find a president. The Regents claimed that they could choose not to follow the GDPA and the OML because the university is independent and self-governing under the state constitution.
In an opinion by Judge James C. Harten, the court of appeals held that both the GDPA and OML apply to the procedures that the Regents employed to find a new university president and that the Minnesota Constitution does not exempt the university from complying with those laws.
The court found that the GDPA explicitly states that it applies to the university as a state agency. The court was not persuaded by the Regents' argument that although the GDPA applies to the university generally, it does not apply to Regents' efforts to hire a new president. The court found that the GDPA statute contains no language to that effect.
The court of appeals also held that the OML applies to the university as a public body and applies to the procedure used by the Regents to hire a news president. Although the OML includes exceptions, the statute provides no exceptions for Regents engaged in recruiting a new president.
Lastly, the court of appeals denied the Regents' argument that the university is exempted from following the GDPA and OML because the university is independent under the Minnesota Constitution. The court recognized that the Regents have a "constitutional mandate to control and manage the university." The GDPA and OML, however, impose only procedural restrictions on that control. The acts do not affect the substantive control and management the Regents exert on behalf of the university.
The court of appeals noted that many states have considered whether searches for public university presidents should be open, and that although decisions have been inconsistent, the trend is toward public presidential searches.
On August 27, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the Regents will appeal the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Silha Research Assistant