Few jobs are more important to Nebraskans, their children, their futures and the state’s economy than those of University of Nebraska president and the chancellors of NU’s four campuses.
The university trains our next generations, does significant research, provides health care to our citizens. The salaries of these key leaders are among the public sector’s largest.
The university will soon undergo a leadership change. Current President J.B. Milliken is leaving to take over the City University of New York.
Who will replace him? Will it be the best person for the job?
Those questions will be more difficult for the taxpaying public to answer if state senators endorse Legislative Bill 1018. They should not.
Offered on behalf of NU by Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, LB 1018 would allow the university to withhold the names of applicants for NU president, vice president and campus chancellors.
Under current law, applicants’ names must be revealed when they are designated as finalists for a position. If there are more than four applicants, at least four finalists must be disclosed.
Arguments for this U-turn in the state’s open government policy sound reasonable at first blush.
Advocates, including Milliken and some university regents, say withholding applicant names would enable the university to attract the very best candidates. Those applicants, maybe current presidents of other schools, wouldn’t have to worry about a job search undercutting their status with their current employers or damaging their standing if they didn’t land the job.
Perhaps. But turnover among university presidents is hardly uncommon. The American Council on Education, in a 2012 report, said the average president’s length of service then was seven years. Is a university governing board really going to be surprised if, after several years, its president might look at another opportunity?
Relying on “trust us” secrecy doesn’t help the university’s standing with Nebraska citizens, who pay the taxes to support the university, who pay tuition to send themselves or their children to school, who make donations to help with scholarships and other needs.
Rather, it would be a blow to the public trust the university needs. Trust that depends upon open communication, upon citizens knowing the criteria for filling the vacancy, knowing the credentials of the finalists, seeing how the elected regents put those elements together in making their choice.
In addition, LB 1018 would establish a terrible precedent for other public bodies in Nebraska.
If secrecy is good for the university’s applicant pool, they will say, then why not for other public entities — school boards hiring superintendents or cities hiring police chiefs and fire chiefs?
Imagine if, after public disclosure of her sexually explicit emails led to the un-hiring of Nancy Sebring as superintendent, the Omaha Public Schools board had conducted a closed-door search and emerged with a lone candidate.
There is intense public interest in the people who are considered for these important positions, what qualifications and accomplishments they bring, how and why they are being selected.
Etched on the Capitol building where senators will decide the fate of this bill is the motto: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.” It’s hard for citizens to be watchful when public officials close the door to their decisions. Democracy is not an easy way to govern, but the desire for easier processes — such as selection of top university administrators — should not trump keeping the processes open to public scrutiny.
Many states’ universities make finalists’ names public and find first-rate candidates. A policy of openness has not prevented the hiring of top-notch administrators: Milliken for starters; new OPS superintendent Mark Evans for another; the current chancellors of UNO and UNK.
The university needs the best leader possible, but an essential part of the job is building support among, and representing the university to, Nebraskans. When this same issue arose in 2004, this newspaper said the person selected “certainly ought to believe in open, above-board governance” and asked: “Will someone unwilling to interview in that way be willing to lead in that way?”
Making certain that Nebraskans have input and knowledge in significant public-hiring decisions remains good state policy.