Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 18
Administrators fumbled firing of football coach
Administrators in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system rank among the very top state employees when it comes to pay.
According to a list of 2012 salaries for 72 MnSCU administrators provided this week by legislative officials, all but a handful make considerably more than Gov. Mark Dayton's annual compensation of $120,311. MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone was paid more than three times what Dayton earned. Richard Davenport, president of Minnesota State University, Mankato, saw his salary increase from $218,354 in 2006 to $289,800 in 2012.
The justification for these wages, and the now-discontinued practice of providing bonuses, has been that the state needs the best and brightest to lead these critical institutions and to be good stewards of state resources. That's why, in the wake of new details about the bungled effort to fire Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner, Minnesotans deserve an answer to this important question:
Did Davenport and other MnSCU officials handle this difficult, high-profile personnel issue in a manner commensurate with their pay?
As state Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, pointed out in an interview this week, not only were Hoffner's career and reputation at stake, so were taxpayer funds. Long after a judge threw out the dubious child-porn charges that had been filed against Hoffner, officials doubled down on their premature decision to fire him and continued to build a case to do so.
Hoffner, who had quickly built a winning football program at the southern Minnesota college, was suspended, transferred to a noncoaching position and then fired in May 2013. He returned as the Mavericks' head coach this week after an arbitrator ruled strongly in his favor and ordered his reinstatement.
"By the time you're done, you've spent six figures on legal fees," said Pelowski, who chairs the Minnesota House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee. "That diverts resources away from a number of things," he added, the most important of which is holding down tuition.
University officials also apparently pursued a settlement with Hoffner, a situation that could have diverted state funds away from other important uses.
The new details about Hoffner's firing came out in an arbitration ruling dated April 9. The state Bureau of Mediation Services declined to make the ruling public, citing a questionable interpretation of data privacy laws.
The Star Tribune obtained a copy of the ruling this week. Its 72 pages are highly critical of school officials and their inability to back away from an early decision to fire Hoffner, even as concerns mounted that he had been wronged by an overzealous prosecutor.
Hoffner had been arrested in August 2012 after university officials found video on his malfunctioning smartphone of his three naked kids goofing off after bath time.
School officials apparently first decided in mid-October 2012 to fire Hoffner, but held off. After the judge threw out the child-porn charges against Hoffner in November 2012, which "should have ended the matter in the public eye," according to the arbitrator, the university continued to build a case against him. Why it did so isn't clear.
Hoffner was finally terminated in spring 2013 for the personal use of his university smartphone, the images found on the phone and his wife's use of his university-issued computers, for pornographic websites accessed on this equipment and because of reports that his children sometimes came into the locker room.
The arbitrator found that the university could not prove that Hoffner looked at porn on the computers — instead, some of it was attributable to other users of the reissued equipment. Many people other than Hoffner had access to his password information and access to the equipment when no one was around. The accounts about kids in the locker room could not be substantiated.
The images found on the cellphone were also clearly not pornographic or sexually explicit, the arbitrator found. Nor did the personal use of his cellphone violate state policy. The university's decision to move Hoffner into an office that appeared to be a dingy former storage closet far away from campus also drew criticism from the arbitrator, and for good reason. The move reflects pettiness on the part of top leadership instead of the fair-minded, evidence-based decisionmaking one would expect.
Davenport, the university president, was not available to answer questions about the arbitrator's ruling, according to a spokesman. MnSCU Chancellor Rosenstone also was unavailable to answer questions about his involvement but provided a statement.
The lack of answers is unacceptable. Hoffner endured a harsh spotlight. The short-lived rebellion by Maverick players this week against his return shows just how hard he'll have to work to rebuild his life. Legislators so far have said little about the handling of the coach's employment. They do, however, have purview over the performance of Davenport, Rosenstone and other officials. It's time for them to get involved and find out if Minnesota got the academic leadership it's paying for.
St. Cloud Times, April 20
Tackle out-of-compliance farm irrigation
It was little known and perhaps even less discussed, but the April 8 Minnesota Senate vote to increase penalties on people using large amounts of groundwater without state permits is an important measure.
In fact, it's so important that when the Legislature reconvenes Tuesday, House members and Gov. Mark Dayton should pursue the matter with equal vigor so this legislation can be enacted as the 2014 growing season gets underway.
Recent news reports have made it clear the state's groundwater resources are increasingly in demand and need more monitoring and protection.
But as Minnesota Public Radio reported the day before the Senate vote, potentially hundreds of farm irrigation systems are or were operating without state permits, using millions of gallons of groundwater annually, and ultimately adding tens of thousands of dollars in profits to crop yields.
Unknown, though, are the impacts on groundwater of a massive increase in large-scale irrigation, most of which has occurred in the past decade.
Please know it's not that all farmers are out of compliance, nor that even those who are should stop irrigating. Rather, these stiffer penalties — poised to jump from a few hundred dollars to as much as $20,000 — are a way to immediately signal to farmers and all Minnesotans the importance of protecting the state's water resources.
In fact, based on that April 8 MPR report as well as an April 6 Times news report, legislators also should consider measures that bolster educational efforts and provide the state with enough resources to enforce the new penalties.
Those reports make it clear some farmers might not be intending to violate state laws governing wells and water usage. Instead, they just aren't aware of requirements that emanate from both the state Department of Health and the Department of Natural Resources.
Also worth noting is that many farmers who irrigate are very concerned about groundwater. As Belgrade farmer Jim Anderson noted in his Times Your Turn published Sunday, his family for generations has provided assistance to the DNR in monitoring wells and groundwater. Like most farmers, Anderson recognizes his livelihood — not just now, but for future generations — hinges on the best balance of utilizing and protecting water resources.
That's why legislators should not just ramp up penalties, but expand educational and enforcement resources, too.
The Free Press of Mankato, April 18
Make course evaluations public
There's been a considerable and legitimate debate over the years about whether students at a public university should have access to teacher and course evaluations.
Whenever there is a legitimate debate, it's hard to be in favor of less information and against more information. Information, after all, is the basis of informed decision-making especially on issues like public education, where more and more taxpayers are demanding results for their money.
So the recent debate about making public evaluations of University of Minnesota courses and, to some extent faculty, is not only legitimate, but should be taken seriously by university faculty and administration.
For years, the university has conducted the evaluations that include evaluations by students who have taken the class. Part of the evaluations — "student release questions" — have been made public at the teacher's choice for years. The Star Tribune reports about 6 percent of teachers have chosen to make them public.
A proposal before the Faculty Senate calls for automatically releasing "course ratings" from the surveys but not individual teacher evaluations. University leaders say the individual teacher rankings would be confidential under state privacy and personnel laws. Some also argue, individual teacher evaluations might not further educational goals.
Some teachers who were "easy graders" might get popular rankings while those who are more demanding would come out as lower-rated teachers among students.
Still, the questions could be fashioned in a way where students had to be more telling about an educator's performance. They could be asked how much they learned, or how much time they spent on homework or if the instructor was prepared.
Students say they need the information on courses and teachers to decide which classes they might take. Many are spending thousands of dollars, as are their parents, and feel a need to be able to choose certain "educational products" based on quality.
University student leadership has been pressing the administration for years to make more of the course and teacher evaluations public, according to the Star Tribune. An overwhelming 95 percent said on a survey in 1997 the ratings would help them pick courses.
The university should make course evaluations more public and easy to access for students. We see no harm in attaching individual professors to individual ratings. The quality of a course will differ depending on who is teaching. Students should be able to make that consumer choice.