University of Minnesota
Board of Regents executive director and corporate secretary Ann Cieslak, who will retire after 13 years, staffed the searches of former President Robert Bruininks and current President Eric Kaler.
Guiding the U
By Adam Overland
"Nobody grows up and says they want to be a board secretary. But you fall into it and find out that for whatever reason, you have this set of skills." So says University of Minnesota Board of Regents executive director and corporate secretary Ann Cieslak, who will retire—reluctantly, due to medical reasons—after 13 years with the board.
Cieslak has, by all accounts, relished her behind-the-scenes role for a group of very visible individuals. The 12 board members, whose job it is to guide one of the greatest assets of the state of Minnesota, rely on the executive director to put them in touch with the people they need to speak with to make informed, and often big-impact, decisions.
Cieslak has served seven Board of Regents chairs and three University presidents, and staffed two presidential searches. She calls the latter task "the stripes on your uniform."
"Presidential searches challenge all that you do—all the backroom work—the contracts, the people the candidates should meet. It's a seven-day-a-week job." A seven-day-a-week job that results in informing a decision that appoints the person who will set the course for an institution with an $8 billion impact on the state—every year.
She most recently staffed the search that brought current President Eric Kaler to the U.
"I cannot thank her enough for her counsel, advice, and guidance to ensure my transition to president was smooth," said Kaler.
Connecting people is one of the most important parts of Cieslak's job. Whether about signing off on Capitol Improvement Budgets worth hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs around the state or about deciding how the U moves forward with e-learning, who the regents talk to will influence their decisions. And who they talk to, from students to professors and senior administrators, is determined by a whole lot of guidance from Cieslak and her staff.
"She has relationships with a lot of key people at the University…she's a wealth of experience—and that is invaluable to someone stepping into the job," said Regent Linda Cohen, who began her role as Chair of the Board in 2011. Cieslak describes the Board of Regents as the most distinguished public board in the state of Minnesota. She calls being a regent "the ultimate volunteer appointment."
"Board members spend easily 40 hours a month in that volunteer role," says Cieslak, "and the chair and committee chairs spend many more than that." Of the many regents she has known personally, Cieslak says that if they have one thing in common, it's that they care deeply about the University.
"They all understand the transformative nature of education."
A statewide endeavor
Regents represent all areas of the state. They have backgrounds as farmers, doctors, ministers, engineers, and more. They have a wide variety of perspectives and experiences, and when they come to the role they leave parochialism behind and become a new entity, says Cieslak. "Being on a board is about collective judgment," she says.
But working for them? She laughs, "It's not like having one boss, and it's not like having 12 bosses—it's a mixture that can be really challenging and really energizing."
One of those bosses, Regent Clyde Allen, who chaired the board from 2009–11, says Cieslak handled that dynamic in spades. "We have a huge university with thousands of personalities and backgrounds, and a board of different personalities. Ann has been at the center of trying to bring all those people together into a team. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of character," said Allen.
Cieslak says that aspect of the board—the personalities representing the parts of the state coming together to transform into the whole of the University—that's what she'll miss most.
"Visiting all the campuses—learning the character of each and how they reflect the state… To be at Jazz Fest at Morris, or Duluth in the fall to see the colors, or to go to Crookston, and all the signs in town all say 'Welcome, U of M Regents and President?' That's a big deal. When you sit in this role, you really feel a sense of responsibility to this state. I'll miss it."