ST. PAUL — Yeah, it wasn’t quite right.
That’s essentially how the new University of Minnesota president described the hiring of a Democratic state lawmaker that brought scrutiny on the university’s hiring practices, nonpartisanship and use of donor funds.
“In this situation, our hiring practices put at risk a core value of the Institute on the Environment, the University, and many of our stakeholders and partners,” President Joan Gabel, who was inaugurated Friday, Sept. 20, said in a written response to the situation the same day.
The hiring practices in question surrounded first-term Rep. Jamie Long, D-Minneapolis, who was hired in July to a temporary paid fellowship at the Energy Transition Lab. The entity “engages university and external experts to catalyze solutions to rapidly reduce carbon emissions and create Minnesota’s clean energy future,” according to its website. It operates under the Institute on the Environment, whose stated mission is “to lead the way toward a future in which people and the environment prosper together” by highlighting research in areas like renewable energy and ecological economics.
“To do this work, the Institute must take steps to avoid even the appearance of partisanship or a conflict of interest,” Gabel said in Friday’s written response to questions from a Republican lawmaker. “Learning from what happened, IonE will be implementing additional measures to hold its hiring practices — even for temporary positions — to a higher standard.”
Long’s hiring was orchestrated by Ellen Anderson, who was the executive director of the Energy Transition Lab — and also a former Democratic lawmaker. According to internal emails and records originally unearthed by a different Republican lawmaker, Anderson allowed Long to write much of the job description himself, including a schedule to accommodate his work as a lawmaker during the period when the Legislature is not in session.
“Asking a candidate to assist in creating a job description is not a common practice,” Gabel wrote in her response to a series of questions from Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, who chairs the Senate’s Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee.
The fallout to Long’s hiring began last week, soon after the media reported on it when Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, the ranking Republican on the House energy and climate committee, publicly exposed the situation via a public records request.
Long resigned from his fellowship. He also denied doing anything wrong. He said he applied to the post like any other job candidate and cast the issue as an attack on climate science, calling Swedzinski’s inquiry a “politically motivated data request targeting my work.” (Swedzinski is a skeptic of human-caused climate change — a phenomenon that an overwhelming consensus of climate experts agree on.) Long did not respond to a request for comment in light of Gabel’s thoughts Friday.
Anderson was reassigned to a position that involves no supervisory responsibilities. Her title is “senior energy researcher.” She has declined to comment.
On Friday, Jessica Hellman, the institute’s executive director and Anderson’s superior, issued the following statement: “Like President Gabel, I also hold dear our values and connection to the citizens of Minnesota. IonE exists to serve the public good by providing evidence-based information and analysis about environmental issues. We understand that even the appearance of partisanship risks undermining that purpose and the work we do in service to our state and the world.”
The university returned a portion of the donation originally destined to be spent on Long’s fellowship — $50,000 — to the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation. The McKnight Foundation released records showing its donation was prohibited from being used for lobbying activities and said it had been assured none of its funds had been, or would be, used to pay Long.
On Friday, Gabel said the university is “reviewing the placement of a question regarding conflicts of interest on its job application to ensure that potential conflicts of interest are addressed early in the process and raise at appropriate levels of authority for review.”
Hortman taught climate, too
Last week, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said she would take “several days” to review Long’s hiring before offering any comment. Long is an assistant majority leader of the House Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus.
Then on Friday, she announced that nonpartisan House staff will hire outside attorneys to look into it — because she taught climate courses with Anderson at the University of Minnesota.
There are currently two lawmakers who are employed by the University of Minnesota system, according to Gabel. Both are Democrats. Rep. Jennifer Schultz of Duluth is a tenured faculty member who teaches health care economics — a post she held prior to being elected in 2014. Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis, who is serving his ninth term, has been a lecturer in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences since 2016.
GOP presses on
Anderson said he appreciated Gabel’s “thorough” response, saying it showed she took critics’ concerns seriously.
“Accountability for the university is very important to her, and we share that,” Anderson said. “In these situations, people do not like cronyism, they don’t like favors to elected officials and they really don’t like the potential of any conflict of interest … and there’s just a lot involved in this that raised a lot of questions.”
Swedzinski issued a statement saying, in part, “Based on the university’s own responses, it appears this hiring process was improper.”
He said he’s awaiting “appropriate actions” from Hortman.