The University of Nebraska, running its first executive search under a new law requiring less disclosure, has divulged little about the search over the past two months.

NU President Hank Bounds has declined to say even how many applicants and nominees there are for the University of Nebraska at Omaha chancellor job.

Last year Bounds and other NU system leaders encouraged the Nebraska Legislature to write a law allowing the university to name only one finalist for the jobs of chancellor and president. They argued that naming four finalists chased off excellent candidates who didn’t want to be publicly exposed as pursuing another job.

The Legislature complied, despite opposition from some senators who said the measure reduced transparency at Nebraska’s largest educational institution.

Numerous UNO faculty members contacted last week generally expressed faith in the search to replace Chancellor John Christensen, 68. He has said he expects to step down at the end of June but would stay on as long as necessary.

Gerontology professor Lyn Holley said the UNO Faculty Senate opposed the legislative proposal last year.

“The Faculty Senate didn’t like it at the time, and we still don’t,” Holley said last week. “But we understand it. We want to get the very best chancellor that we can.”

Openness versus secrecy during public university executive searches has been an issue for decades. More than 25 years ago the NU Board of Regents and its presidential search committee wrestled with how much to disclose, but they still gave frequent public updates on their progress.

The new law doesn’t address whether NU must say how many people have applied or how the search is progressing.

“We are following the process defined by the law,” NU spokeswoman Melissa Lee said in an email. “President Bounds did provide an update in late January when we released the position profile, which was developed by a broadly representative search committee and informed by input from hundreds of stakeholders who attended public listening sessions.”

Bounds said in January that UNO’s next chancellor should have a “terminal degree,” such as a doctorate; should have a record of achievement in scholarly, professional or creative work; and should understand the role of a metropolitan university. He said applications and nominations should go to Parker Executive Search, the Atlanta company hired for $95,000 plus expenses to assist the search committee with the hunt.

Bounds held a “listening session” at UNO in late November in which dozens of professors, staffers and students described desired characteristics in UNO’s next chancellor.

The World-Herald attempted to reach the 15 search committee members last week to ask about the search. Only three responded, and they referred a reporter to Lee or to committee co-chairwoman Theresa Barron-McKeagney, a UNO faculty member, who didn’t return calls. The committee is primarily made up of UNO faculty members. Parker Executive Search did not return calls either.

NU argued last year that naming four finalists would put NU at a competitive disadvantage with peer institutions that don’t release the identities of candidates.

Among those opposed were Media of Nebraska, which lobbies on behalf of The World-Herald and other news outlets in the state, and the watchdog group Common Cause Nebraska. They argued that the public has a stake in the process, deserves to have more than one finalist and can provide input that can lead to hiring good leaders or dissuade the university from hiring bad ones. The NU system this year received about $570 million in state money.

Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska acknowledged last week that there are “arguments on all sides.”

Gould comes down on the side of openness. “This is a public school, it’s not a private school,” he said of the NU system. “The public has a definite stake in what’s going on there. Sometimes the university forgets that it’s a public entity.”

But State Sen. John Murante, who introduced the legislation last year that became the law, said he had no regrets.

“I haven’t seen anything that’s concerned me thus far,” said Murante, of Gretna. “I’ll withhold judgment and watch the process play out.”

The law calls for NU leadership to name a finalist, or “priority candidate,” at least 30 days before the president formally hires a chancellor. Lee said the president hires chancellors subject to Board of Regents approval.

NU also is required by the law to make available the finalist’s application, résumé, reference letters and school transcripts. Also before a final decision, a forum is to be held for the public, students, faculty and staff to meet and pose questions to the finalist.

Twenty-seven years ago, when the NU system pursued a new president, the search committee and search consultant provided approximately twice-monthly updates on progress, numbers of candidates and other matters.

At that time, search committee co-chairman Duane Acklie said at least four good prospects declined to pursue the Nebraska job because they didn’t want it to be known that they were in the hunt.

Acklie, a Lincoln businessman who died last year, gave regular updates, saying at one point that more than 150 people had applied or been nominated and at another point that the committee had whittled the list to seven, whom he didn’t name.

The official finalist list included Gene Budig, who at the time was chancellor of the University of Kansas; Martin Jischke, who at the time was chancellor of the University of Missouri-Rolla and would go on to lead Iowa State and Purdue; and University of Kentucky-Lexington Chancellor Robert Hemenway, who would go on to lead the University of Kansas.

The regents hired Martin Massengale, who had been the University of Nebraska-Lincoln chancellor.

Last week Holley said she believed, based on something the dean of the UNO College of Public Affairs and Community Service had said, that the finalist would be announced in time for the regents to confirm on June 1.

“That’s my understanding,” said that dean, John Bartle.

Bartle then backed away from that, saying in an email that, to his knowledge, “there is no specific plan that the UNO chancellor candidate will be announced May 1.”

Lee said no date is set for any announcement or decision. “I couldn’t say that it (the appointment) is happening in June or not,” she said. “We don’t have a firm deadline.”

Griff Elder, a UNO math professor and member of the Faculty Senate, said that at this point in the semester he is focused on the next few weeks of classes.

“I think we’re expecting to hear something pretty soon,” Elder said of the search. “The fact that everything’s sort of kept under wraps is a control strategy. Now that could be a good thing, it could be a bad thing. It all depends on the outcome.”

rick.ruggles@owh.com, 402-444-1123, twitter.com/rickruggles

Rick covers higher education for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @RickRuggles. Phone: 402-444-1123.

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