When the University of Nebraska hired a new president a year ago, four people were named publicly and vetted as candidates.
Put another way, four job seekers were outed to their bosses and staff. How much that matters depends on whom you ask.
University leaders are making their second run at moving a bill through the Nebraska Legislature that would allow them to name only a single candidate for president or chancellor jobs. The bill introduced this session adds requirements for a 30-day public vetting of that candidate.
It’s a change university officials say would put Nebraska more in line with other public university systems and avoid losing candidates who don’t want to take the public gamble of having their names made public. Media organizations, however, object because such disclosure gives the public a voice in the selection of finalists for important leadership posts.
In the last NU presidency search, one candidate, Hank Bounds, ended up with the job as NU president. Another got a sizable raise and stayed at his current job.
The other two candidates are no longer in the same roles. They said they understood why other potential applicants might be deterred, though the publicity didn’t prevent them from applying.
Bounds, who supports Legislative Bill 1109, said he approached the job with a lot of trepidation because of the open process. He applied anyway, though, because he said he was in a “perfect situation”: His board at the Mississippi State Institutions of Higher Learning already knew and understood that he was looking for another opportunity.
“If we can only go after people who are in a perfect position, who know they will continue to have support regardless, that’s a pretty high standard,” Bounds said.
NU Regent Howard Hawks is leading the push for the new bill. He has said the university has been fortunate to attract talented people, but he’s convinced the current law discourages potential candidates from applying.
If passed, the bill is unlikely to affect the current search for a University of Nebraska-Lincoln chancellor to replace Harvey Perlman, who is retiring this spring. Bounds said he expects to hire someone before the bill would go into effect.
The university backed a similar bill in 2014 that died in committee.
The Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee also will review this bill. A hearing has not yet been scheduled.
The current state law requiring four candidates followed a 2004 incident in which an NU search committee interviewed some candidates for the president’s job in Kansas City, Missouri, in an attempt to maintain their confidentiality. News media and university officials reached a compromise in 2007 that protected applicants in exchange for the university sharing the names of four finalists.
Alan Peterson, a lobbyist and attorney for Media of Nebraska, said the organization thinks the bill Hawks is pushing represents reneging on that deal.
“We reached a fair compromise and have lived with it,” Peterson said. “We think the university has hired excellent people since then.”
Sen. John Murante, lead sponsor of the bill, said he isn’t bound by deals made by past legislators, and he believes the proposal is important for NU’s future. Sen. Galen Hadley, speaker of the Legislature, also expressed his support for the bill to the NU regents on Friday, saying that giving top candidates anonymity will broaden the talent pool.
In 2014, the regents passed a resolution supporting the bill. This year, they haven’t. Regent Bob Phares said Friday he and the other regents are in full support of the bill.
“I think it will be an easier process if we are able to just bring one person forward,” Phares said.
His position is not a criticism of past searches, Phares said, and he believes the university got the best possible result in the most recent search that brought Bounds to NU.
“We are fortunate we were as successful as we were,” Phares said.
Bounds and three other candidates went through a public interview process in 2014 after being named finalists for the NU presidency. Each of the four was interviewed publicly by the Board of Regents and held a public forum on each campus, a process not mandated by the current law.
The bill would mirror that process, but only for a single preliminarily selected candidate. Bounds said the scrutiny and media attention didn’t bother him, but he was concerned his loyalty would be questioned if he wasn’t ultimately selected.
“I think this law puts the University of Nebraska at a distinct disadvantage,” Bounds said.
Sally Rockey, another finalist during the last search for NU president, said she didn’t mind publicity about her interest; she was already a public figure.
Rockey, who was then deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health, said the hardest part was continuing to do her job while she lobbied for the Nebraska job.
She thought the public interview was important because it was an opportunity for students and faculty to learn about her qualifications. On the flip side, she might have had more frank conversations with board members were it behind closed doors.
“As a president of a public university, it is good to have (the process) public as a candidate,” Rockey said. “At the same time, I think the process is so public that the search made it difficult to deal with your life back at home.”
There were no repercussions, though, Rockey said, aside from struggling to explain her candidacy to her staff. When she left the agency last year, it was for her “dream job” as the founding executive director for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.
Michael V. Martin, who recently went from chancellor to chancellor emeritus at the Colorado State University System, said he has never been deterred by a public search.
Martin believes it’s understood in the higher education world that top jobs are not permanent, and that moving up often requires moving on. University administration is a small world, he said, and he would expect that even a closed search would get back to his bosses.
“I’m old enough and mature enough to be able to cope both with possibilities and rejection, and to manage my way around it,” Martin said. “I never felt I had to keep this secret from anyone.”
The other finalist for the NU job was George Ross, president of Central Michigan University. Ross withdrew from consideration after his board gave him a nearly 16 percent raise to $430,000 and offered annual $30,000 retention bonuses in an effort to keep him in Michigan. He didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Judith Block McLaughlin, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who researches college presidents, said it’s becoming more common to name a single finalist at public universities because a president job hunting can almost be viewed as “infidelity.”
“You are the living logo of that institution, and as such, people don’t want to think that you are ‘moving up’ by going to another place,” McLaughlin said. “It’s different to come to campus as a top candidate.”
She said it’s rare, but not unheard of, for a lone candidate to ultimately not be offered the job after a campus visit.
The most important aspect is a thorough conversation about the choice among a wide range of qualified people, she said.
“That person needs to be vetted,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean opening it to the entire campus to come and see.”