At contentious meeting, McMillan named interim UMD chancellor
The University of Minnesota Board of Regents voted 9-2 despite allegations of impropriety, or at least the appearance of it.
MINNEAPOLIS — Hackles were raised as University of Minnesota leaders chose a temporary head for the system’s Duluth campus.
The statewide system’s Board of Regents voted 9-2 on Wednesday to appoint David McMillan the interim chancellor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. McMillan spent decades in C-suite positions at Minnesota Power and its parent company, Allete, and was himself a U of M regent until he resigned to pursue the job at the Duluth campus.
He’s set to be the head administrator at the school through summer 2024. A subsequent 9-2 vote, which was not on the board’s agenda prior to the meeting, agreed to pay McMillan $250,000 each year plus a $25,000 housing allowance.
McMillan has received broad support for the position among UMD faculty and staff, and a representative from the school’s student government spoke highly of him at the regents’ meeting.
But he also was one of nine regents who, last December, voted for a substantial pay raise for Joan Gabel, the university system’s president. Critics have claimed that produces at least the suggestion of a quid pro quo between him and Gabel, who would typically name an interim chancellor by herself.
It was a recipe for a sometimes contentious meeting Wednesday, during which some regents and other U of M leaders bristled at the notion that their integrity or the integrity of the search process itself could be called into question.
“There’s so much positive things going on about this university,” Regent Steve Sviggum said angrily, “and yet folks want to bring us into the muck and the mud. That is so wrong, so wrong.”
Gabel, for her part, said she didn’t ask for anyone to be nominated or ask for anyone to apply, nor did she promise or offer the chancellorship to anyone.
“On the contrary, all candidates were told they would have to pursue the position like anyone else,” Gabel said. “Before any applicants were considered for the job by anyone, I waived my unilateral presidential authority to make an interim appointment and removed myself completely from the process. ... There has been no quid pro quo.”
She said the allegations of a conflict of interest were “false,” “hurtful,” “insulting” and they caused “reckless damage” to UMD and the university system. Gabel left the meeting shortly afterward.
In late June, she deferred the interim chancellor decision partly to an 18-person search committee. Its members would vet candidates and recommend them to the regents, and partly to the regents themselves, who’d consider confirming them.
Search committee members said McMillan was the only person they interviewed, and he was the only one they recommended to regents for the job.
'Unusual isn't inherently wrong'
A persistent skeptic of the circumstances of McMillan’s application for the job has been Darrin Rosha, another regent who’s said he doesn’t know if there was an explicit quid pro quo between McMillan and Gabel but believes regents should avoid circumstances that even raise the possibility of one.
“It’s not a function of proving that there was an arrangement,” Rosha said.
In late June, Rosha, retired Minnesota governor Arne Carlson; U of M law professor and ethics specialist Richard Painter; and Tom Berkelman, a retired Duluth-area state legislator, called on the state’s legislative auditor to review McMillan’s application and the broader power structure of the board. And on Tuesday, a group of 38 Republican state lawmakers wrote to regents, urging them to vote against McMillan’s candidacy.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Rosha and Regent James Farnsworth both worried that, arrangement or not, the circumstances could undermine trust in the university as an institution. Both pointed to a pair of March 2012 meetings at which board members agreed that Sviggum’s employment with the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus was its own conflict of interest. Sviggum resigned from the board, then under pressure from other regents, but was re-elected in 2017.
“If there is a potential conflict that is viewed by the public as an apparent conflict of interest, the board cannot maintain the public trust,” Farnsworth said, quoting McMillan himself from the minutes of one of those 2012 meetings.
Other regents weren’t buying it.
Regent Janie Mayeron said Gabel’s pay hike was a group decision that wasn’t driven by McMillan, and that Lendley Black, UMD’s current chancellor who’s on the cusp of retirement now that McMillan is set to succeed him, announced his retirement before regents approved Gabel’s raise.
“If you’re to believe this whole claim of impropriety, somehow, somewhere along the line, she and Dave McMillan cooked up a whole scheme by which she would get a search committee and hire an outsider, they would do their due diligence, they’d do all their work, they’d make recommendations, ultimately she would conclude it failed, and then he would come in at the back door and apply for an interim position,” Mayeron said. “That’s, in essence, what we’re talking about these baseless allegations, and there’s nothing to support that.”
Public trust, she argued, was being affected by the claims of a conflict of interest.
Regent Mike Kenyanya, a UMD graduate himself, said the situation was unusual, but that “unusual isn’t inherently wrong.” He also wondered how, if a backroom deal had been reached between Gabel and McMillan, the search committee would recommend McMillan for the job anyway.
“Was the committee also somehow bought out or however else you want to say it?” Kenyanya asked rhetorically. “When the search was then passed back to the committee by the president, I think that restored, or should have restored, confidence where others didn’t feel it was there.”
McMillan 'eager to get started'
The search for an interim chancellor came on the heels of a failed effort to find and select a more permanent chancellor this spring after Black, who’s headed UMD since 2010, announced his retirement in November.
Gabel said the first search did not “yield” a chancellor, but details beyond that have been scarce.
Regent Kendall Powell, who chairs the board, said he understands why that search failed, but was also light on details, pointing to the state’s data privacy laws.
“From time to time, the first search doesn’t work. It happens,” Powell said Wednesday. “President Gabel made a good call, and then she moved on to appropriate next steps.”
Voting in favor of McMillan’s appointment and salary were regents Mary Davenport, Doug Huebsch, Ruth Johnson, Kenyanya, Mayeron, Bo Thao-Urabe, Kodi Verhalen, and Powell. Voting against both were regents Farnsworth and Rosha.
McMillan did not return News Tribune requests for comment on Wednesday afternoon. He deferred instead to a statement put forward by the U’s public relations team, which reads:
“I appreciate tremendously the support so many people on the Duluth campus and throughout Duluth and the Northeastern Minnesota region have shown me during this process, as well as the confidence of the search committee that recommended me for the job.
"I am called to serve this campus, one that has meant and continues to mean so much to me. I have invested a lifetime in the Northland, and my experiences in business, in civic leadership and on the UMD campus — and the University overall — have well prepared me to contribute to our campus’ future in meaningful ways over the next two short years. We have a lot of hard work in front of us and I’m eager to get started.”