Star Tribune, March 19
Legislature shouldn't be meddling in MnSCU
It's tough for legislators to resist the impulse to fix something they consider amiss in any part of state government. But when the part in question is the 54-campus Minnesota State Colleges and University (MnSCU) system at this juncture in its 20-year history, restraint is in order.
That's what we would advise in the case of a pair of bills sponsored by GOP Sen. Jeremy Miller of Winona. Miller's moves are well-intentioned. But if enacted, they would impose state law in matters customarily left to educators and governing boards — and would do so just as MnSCU is restarting a strategic planning process that had been stalled by discord between the faculty and the system's chancellor.
One of Miller's bills would alter the selection of presidents at MnSCU's 31 institutions to involve more control by a locally empaneled search committee and less by MnSCU's chancellor, Steven Rosenstone. MnSCU's existing process, which is not dictated by statute, involves considerable local consultation but gives Rosenstone latitude in shaping search committees. Campus presidents are ultimately appointed by MnSCU's Board of Trustees.
Miller says his bill is a response to a desire within MnSCU for more campus control, and is not meant as criticism of presidential selections during Rosenstone's tenure. It's notable that all of the 18 presidential appointments made on Rosenstone's watch have been first-choice candidates. They are a remarkably diverse group: 11 of the 18 are women and six are people of color. Minnesotans who value diversity in higher education should applaud that record and be wary of change in the selection process that produced it.
The other bill would direct MnSCU to implement a new plan for improving students' ability to transfer credits from two-year to four-year programs, something MnSCU has been striving to streamline for many years. Miller says his bill reflects impatience with the system's slow internal workings on curricular matters, which are traditionally the purview of the faculty. A House bill sponsored by DFL Rep. Connie Bernardy of Fridley takes a different but similarly directive approach on credit transfers.
Their impatience is understandable. But legislators aren't well-positioned to make academic judgments. If they do, they risk damaging an institution's reputation and ability to attract talent from around the country. That reputation needs safeguarding now. Only two weeks ago, MnSCU put itself back on a promising path to change that involves both more local engagement and smoother student transfers from one MnSCU institution to another. This year's Legislature would be well advised to cheer on MnSCU and stay out of its way.
The Free Press of Mankato, March 19
Information denials outrageous
The record number of denials citizens face when asking for public information is once again astounding, disappointing and maddening.
A report on federal Freedom of Information Act requests showed another record number of requests from the media and the public, but it also unfortunately showed a denial rate that is spiraling upward. The report was released this week, also known as Sunshine Week for news organizations — a time to focus on openness in government.
Whenever the public is denied information, democracy suffers. A government that seems to reinforce barriers to information will soon lose legitimacy. Both are troubling trends that can be discerned from the latest report on access to public information.
An in-depth analysis by the Associated Press shows the Obama administration denying Freedom of Information requests and "censoring government files" at a record level. The government's obfuscation involved delaying release of records far beyond a reasonable time period, saying it couldn't find information more regularly and regarding some requests as unreasonable.
At the end of 2014, there were 200,000 unanswered requests for information, a 55 percent increase from the previous year. It's no surprise the backlog is growing. The government reduced by 375 the number of employees working to process those requests. That's a 9 percent drop.
The government report on access shows some 700,000 requests by citizens, journalists and businesses, another record number. And while the government spent $434 million trying to process those requests, it spent $28 million on lawyers' fees trying to keep records secret. Of the 650,000 requests the government did respond to, it denied or censored nearly 40 percent of them.
In one case, The Associated Press requested information from the Treasury Department to find out what was involved in U.S. economic sanctions of Iran. They got a 237 report back nine years after the request, and it was completely blacked out.
The Obama White House tried to put a positive spin on its own analysis saying that requests it considers unreasonable shouldn't be counted. By that measure, the government provided some or all information in 91 percent of all requests. That's quite a stretch of the imagination.
The White House did concede that in one of three cases, it was partially or completely wrong in denying a request but only after it had been challenged.
By law, most government records are deemed to be open to the public unless they reveal private information like Social Security numbers, contain business trade secrets or release of records would somehow threaten national security.
But information in government reports like who pays for Michelle Obama's expensive dresses and the nature of Hillary Clinton's emails as secretary of state are supposed to be public. Yet, the information has been denied or deleted.
News organizations, the public and business are supposed to get most of the public information for the price of copying it, but we know all parties spend millions on lawyers going to court to challenge information denials.
The annual report on access to government records should be an opportunity for any administration to show its willingness to engage its citizens in a decision-making democracy where the public and news organizations can gather information to improve how the government works. It should be an opportunity for an administration to prove its transparency and bolster the public's confidence.
And despite promises that the Obama administration was going to be the most transparent in history, the record shows a different picture.
This kind of secrecy by obfuscation only erodes confidence in American democracy
St. Cloud Times, March 19
More than just Tech should respond to protest
Another wave of ethnic tension crashed upon St. Cloud on Wednesday, this time at Technical High School, where more than 100 students and some parents protested how school officials handle their complaints about how they are being treated. Most people were of Somali descent, and their primary issues revolve around how they are treated by non-Somali peers.
One example Wednesday included a photo spread on social media showing a Somali student at Tech with words implying she was affiliated with the Islamic State, a terrorist organization. Not to be overlooked, comments posted via Facebook on news reports about the protest accused Somali students of being bullies, too.
Sadly, such accusations are not new to St. Cloud. Like most fast-growing communities, the metro area has long struggled to accept new residents, especially those of different cultures, races and faiths.
So while St. Cloud school administrators certainly must take the lead in reducing tension among students at Tech, the broader community needs to maximize yet another teachable moment about peaceful coexistence and respecting and embracing differences knowing that this is indeed the land of the free.
First, school leaders are strongly encouraged to share details of the Tech situation with all residents.
What happened (or didn't) to spur such a large protest? What is verifiable? What isn't? What are policies and procedures for dealing with inappropriate conduct and bullying? Have they been applied consistently regardless of student demographics? Most important of all, what might change at Tech to ease these tensions? And if nothing changes, school officials must thoroughly explain why.
Beyond the school, though, there needs to be a concerted, communitywide effort to educate each other about cultural and especially religious differences.
Nothing better reflects that than the relentless-but-misguided call for people of Somali descent — especially these students — to "go home." For starters, there's a good chance many of the students protesting Wednesday are native-born Americans. Second and regardless, the founding principles of this nation give legal immigrants the right to live where they choose.
Ultimately, this latest explosion of ethnic tension should fuel some of the many civic-minded businesses and organizations to work together and ramp up efforts to help all residents accept each other's differences.
This is not a new idea. In the past few decades, entities such as Create CommUNITY, the United Way of Central Minnesota, Greater St. Cloud Communities Priorities and others have tackled this challenge. What happened at Tech on Wednesday shows it's time to draw on those experiences and further educate all of us living in the greater St. Cloud area.