The writer is an attorney and executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a Washington-based nonprofit advocate for open government in schools and colleges.
Hiring the president of a major public university has increasingly begun to resemble a cheap spy novel — complete with disguises, shredded documents and secret airport meet-ups. These obsessively secret selection processes produce obsessively secretive presidents, who run their institutions with disregard for public accountability.
Nebraska has been a noteworthy exception.
But its Legislature is on the verge of joining the “race to the bottom” of states depriving the public of input into the choice of some of their communities’ most powerful and highest-paid government officials.
Before a person is handed a $400,000-a-year state paycheck and the keys to a $1.2 billion budget, the public has a right to know whether the best candidate was chosen or whether superior contenders got passed over.
But Nebraska’s Legislative Bill 1109 would close off all meaningful public access to presidential searches, leaving the public with a single done-deal “finalist” — and no clue about whether the process was fair.
In some parts of the country, college trustees have gone to comical and at times highly questionable lengths to keep the public uninformed about presidential hiring.
Members of the Kent State (Ohio) search committee shredded their notes to evade a public-records request.
Trustees at Louisiana State went to the brink of jail in defying a judge’s order to surrender the list of presidential finalists.
A University of Michigan trustee wore a disguise to escort the soon-to-be president on a campus tour.
When the citizens of a major university campus are handed a pig-in-a-poke president after a closed search, it’s like telling the residents of a 40,000-person city that their mayor has just been picked for them in a smoke-filled room.
These secret searches have been pushed on state legislators by well-paid “headhunting” contractors, who dominate the hiring process so that the participation of campus search committees is an empty formality.
Closed-door searches are a proven failure. They’ve resulted in disastrous mismatches when unqualified strangers were plopped into unfamiliar campuses.
Look no further than the University of Missouri, where former President Tim Wolfe’s failed presidency was preordained by a secretive search without public input.
It turned out that Wolfe had no aptitude for, or interest in, interacting with actual college students — a fact that would have become apparent if Missouri had conducted a transparent search, bringing multiple candidates to campus for a test-drive.
The only rationale offered for excluding the public from presidential searches is that sitting university presidents will not risk their existing jobs by applying for a new one.
Think about what that’s really protecting: the right of a president to deceive his current campus about his interest in leaving.
Is that really something we care about enough to accept the trade-off of ill-matched presidents who’ve been poorly screened?
Nor is there any indication from recent searches that a closed-door process succeeds in luring away other colleges’ superstar presidents.
It didn’t happen at Purdue, where the governor who had appointed the majority of the trustees, Mitch Daniels, snatched the presidency for himself. It didn’t happen at the Universities of Georgia, Texas or Washington, where in-house candidates were elevated. And it didn’t happen at the University of Iowa, where a former restaurant executive with no university experience, J. Bruce Harreld, has limped into a presidency fatally wounded by an illegitimate search process.
Having decided on Harreld behind closed doors, Iowa’s regents rushed through the legally required series of on-campus finalist interviews just 48 hours before making their choice, guaranteeing that the public would have no meaningful opportunity to vet any of the candidates. Then they ignored public sentiment that Harreld was the least-qualified contender.
Is it true that fewer candidates will apply in publicly visible searches?
No doubt. Just as there’s no doubt more people would apply to drive taxis if valid driver licenses weren’t required, and more people would apply to be cops if we did away with criminal background checks.
Sometimes “more applicants” isn’t really better.
If presidential searches remain open, here’s who won’t apply: (1) people so arrogant they can’t stand the thought of losing; (2) people whose backgrounds won’t hold up to public scrutiny and (3) people with contempt for open government.
That valuable weed-out function is a good enough reason for the Legislature and Gov. Pete Ricketts to reject LB 1109 and keep the sun shining on Nebraska’s campuses.