Former U regent recommended for Duluth campus leadership role, despite controversy

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune file/Star Tribune/TNS
·4 min read

DULUTH — A former University of Minnesota regent is the recommended choice to lead the Duluth campus of the U on a two-year, interim basis, despite controversy around his application.

David McMillan, who as regent represented Duluth and the surrounding region since 2011, resigned to apply to become UMD's interim chancellor after a $166,000 national search failed to produce a permanent choice.

Nominations were sought for the temporary leadership position, and McMillan, a retired Minnesota Power executive and UMD graduate, was among the six. Duluth-based civic, business and higher education leaders encouraged him to apply, he said.

"The opportunity really came to me," McMillan said, as his wife will retire this month and they had plans to move from Duluth to their cabin in northern Aitkin County. "We started thinking that maybe this short-term opportunity is something I am cut out for ... I know where UMD's greatest strengths lie and where its greatest challenges lie."

But a group that includes former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson and Regent Darrin Rosha has said the move gives the appearance of a conflict of interest, and has asked the state auditor to investigate the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. In part, they allege conflict of interest concerns related to McMillan and U President Joan Gabel.

The U, and Gabel, have released very little information about the costly six-month search and why none of the three candidates invited to campus for interviews were selected.

Carlson said this week McMillan's regent vote to approve Gabel's latest contract and pay raise casts his bid in a bad light, with the appearance that Gabel would be granting McMillan a favor if he's chosen to replace longtime leader Lendley Black, despite the fact she has recused herself from the search process.

"In the whole history of the University of Minnesota, something like this has never occurred before," Carlson said. "You don't create a situation where the board of regents is involved in the appointment process of a regent who resigns to take the post. At best, it gives the appearance of a conflict of interest."

Search committee leaders sent a letter to regents late this week sharing the recommendation of the 18-member group. The recommendation said McMillan was found to have "the leadership qualities, system-level experience, and passion for UMD and the Duluth community that exceeded the other applicants."

The board of regents will vote on the selection of McMillan Wednesday.

McMillan said Thursday his vote in favor of Gabel's pay increase was one of a majority, and he's surprised by Rosha's and others' accusations, finding them "absurd."

"My integrity and track record and who I am, would never allow me to sit down and cut a secret deal," he said. "I don't see it."

U spokesman Jake Ricker said "no conflict exists," but Gabel removed herself from the process to eliminate any concerns. He said it's not typical for a campus-level search committee to bring a recommendation to the regents for action, but it's meant to remove any "false future perception" of conflicting interests related to the search.

Rosha said U leadership has been opaque about both searches, and doesn't understand why someone with "no experience in academic administration and no academic credentials" would be chosen to lead the second largest campus in the U system.

"This candidate has been a part of providing (Gabel's) financial compensation," Rosha said. "It's a very important institution, and we shouldn't be risking its reputation when it's not fundamentally necessary."

In the group's appeal to the state auditor, it said McMillan was central to Gabel's hiring.

"McMillan now calls on the recipient of that generosity to grant him a chancellorship," it reads.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor declined a special review and said the issues the group raised would be put on a list for consideration in 2023.

Ken Powell and Steve Sviggum, chair and vice chair of the Board of Regents, respectively, sent a letter to Rosha last week following the audit request. Both were "troubled" by what they deemed Rosha's "baseless and reckless assertions over the ongoing search" for a UMD chancellor.

"Your continued speculation that there is a problem — without any foundation — unfairly tramples upon [McMillan's and Gabel's] stellar reputations and is detrimental to both UMD and the institution," they wrote.

Letters to the editor in support of McMillan have appeared in the Duluth News Tribune, one co-signed by several members of a committee who served in an advisory role related to the chancellor search and also nominated McMillan, including former Duluth Mayor Don Ness and former Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon.

"The interim chancellor position offers much more challenge than prize," the letter reads, "and we knew our request represented a personal sacrifice. We asked because we admire David's ethics and integrity and trust his judgment and his commitment to UMD's best interests."