LINCOLN — A legislative committee on Wednesday rejected efforts to hold a private search for a new University of Nebraska president.
Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee members voted 5-2 against advancing a bill that would have created an exemption to public disclosure laws for finalists for top NU positions.
Committee members rejected arguments from university officials that good candidates would shy away from Nebraska if they knew that their names would become known.
State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, the committee chairman, said the bill would represent “a pretty major ding” to government transparency and would apply to only one institution.
“The public’s right to know is pretty important,” he said.
Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber called the risks that candidates take because of public disclosure “the nature of the beast” at a public university.
Current state law requires disclosure of the top four finalists for government positions.
Legislative Bill 1018, introduced by Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, a retired University of Nebraska at Kearney professor and administrator, would narrow the requirement to the last finalist for the positions of NU president, NU vice president and campus chancellors.
NU Board of Regents Chairman Howard Hawks of Omaha called the vote “very disappointing.” He said the university is already losing two good candidates who told Hawks that they wouldn’t apply in an open process.
“I think it’s unfortunate for the university and the people of the state,” Hawks said. “Now I guess there will be a public vetting of four finalists, but it won’t include people who otherwise would’ve been considered.”
Regent Tim Clare of Lincoln disagreed that transparency was an issue because the regents always planned to be transparent about their finalist. Competing for candidates when so many other states are closing their searches is challenging, he said, adding that getting the best pool of candidates was always the goal.
“At the end of the day, we want to do the absolute best job we can in creating the best university and having the best leadership,” Clare said.
But Avery, a retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor, said he doesn’t believe that the university has suffered because of the law. He noted that current NU President J.B. Milliken was chosen from among four publicly identified finalists.
Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue said he wrestled over the issue but concluded that transparency is important and has not hurt the university.
Although the NU regents have said they would provide a chance for the public to meet the last finalist, Avery noted that there was nothing in the bill requiring such meetings.
He also noted that public disclosure may not occur until after the finalist has been offered the job.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Faculty Senate president, Rigoberto Guevara, said faculty will be glad that attempts to increase secrecy have been held off for now.
“At least we will know about the last few candidates before an offer is made,” Guevara said. “We can live with that.”
The current state law was a compromise reached between news media and university officials in 2007.
The law was passed after a 2004 incident in which an NU search committee interviewed some presidential candidates in Kansas City, Mo., in an attempt to maintain their confidentiality.
The issue arose again after Milliken was named chancellor of the City University of New York. He begins the job June 1.
World-Herald staff writer Kate Howard Perry contributed to this report.