LINCOLN — Opponents of a closed search for the next University of Nebraska president say giving up transparency isn't worth the potential benefits.
Supporters, however, say the Board of Regents should be trusted to do the right thing in private when the secrecy brings them more top-tier candidates.
Discussion on a bill that would allow NU to conduct its searches for presidents, chancellors and vice presidents in private lasted nearly 2½ hours Thursday.
Under Legislative Bill 1018, the university wouldn't have to release a name until a search was narrowed to the last finalist.
Sen. Bill Avery, the chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, said after the hearing that he is considering an amendment that would ensure that the final candidate goes through a thorough and public vetting and interview.
Avery, a former professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, opposed the bill when it was introduced by Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney. Avery, of Lincoln, is now unsure. Both sides, he said, made valid points.
“I'm still working my way through it,” he said.
Avery said he expects the committee will vote next week on whether to send the measure to the full Legislature.
Current law, the result of a 2007 compromise between the news media and university officials, requires NU to make the names of four finalists public.
Hadley said higher education has changed since the Legislature struck that compromise, and as more states close their searches, Nebraska needs to do the same to remain competitive.
“A closed search does not guarantee the best candidate for a position will apply and be chosen, but a closed search, I truly believe, does guarantee that the pool of candidates for the position will contain more and better candidates than if they have to put out their names in the public,” Hadley said.
NU will be searching for a president to replace J.B. Milliken, who is leaving this spring to lead the City University of New York system.
NU regents don't intend to announce a candidate the same day they offer the job, Hadley said. He said he is open to amending the bill to specify a public vetting period.
Supporters of the bill were associated with NU and the Nebraska business community, including Robert Duncan, chairman emeritus of Duncan Aviation, and staff from the Nebraska Farm Bureau and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. All said they believe NU's searches suffer when candidates have to worry about their names being released publicly.
Regent Tim Clare said the regents unanimously support the bill. The board plans to name advisory committees and seek feedback from the public on desired values and characteristics for candidates, he said.
“You can be absolutely assured, when a finalist is named, that person will visit the university and, in the interest of transparency, hold public sessions and have additional vetting,” Clare said.
The bill's opponents at Thursday's hearing were largely representing media organizations that said more government secrecy is a step backward for Nebraska and its taxpayers.
Alan Peterson, an attorney representing Media of Nebraska, which helped arrange the 2007 compromise, dismissed that the public's opinion of one candidate so late in the process would make a difference.
“As strong-minded and as powerful as our regents are, once they've made up their mind, the chance to vet is pretty meaningless,” Peterson said.
David Bundy, president of Media of Nebraska and editor at the Lincoln Journal Star, said the press considers vetting candidates for big jobs like NU's president to be part of its job, and having one candidate doesn't allow comparison. Even if the law works and brings in better candidates, Bundy said nobody will ever know it.
“The public will never know by (the law's) very nature,” Bundy said.
Sen. Jim Scheer said he isn't sure he can agree wholly with either side.
“There are legitimate concerns both from the open meeting basis and concern for trying to get the best person to run the most valuable industry within the state of Nebraska,” Scheer said. “I don't know that we can come up with a compromise that allows that.”
But if the regents are saying they will vet a candidate, Scheer said he believes senators should take them at their word.