Media fights bill that would close NU president search

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – Representatives of the Nebraska media went to the state capitol with guns blazing Thursday to oppose a bill that would shroud in secrecy the process of finding a new University of Nebraska president. Figuratively, of course.

With NU President J.B. Milliken leaving his post to take a new job, the bill would keep the selection process secret until there is one finalist.

SHHHH: State lawmakers are considering a bill that would keep private the names of finalists for the University of Nebraska president until there is just one.

Supporters of the bill said the open records law should be amended to keep the names of finalists secret so top-tier candidates don’t shy away from applying for the job, but opponents said that’s no reason to chip away at transparency protections the xx-year-old law.

The legislative committee seemed to be leaning against kicking the bill out, so it may never make it to the floor of the Legislature anyway.

Kearney Sen. Galen Hadley sponsored the bill, saying after 35 years in higher education, he’s seen candidates pull out of the running to avoid being publicly identified. And the presidential-search landscape has changed since the law was amended in 2007 years ago in a compromise that requires the top four finalists for NU president to be open to the public.

“Closed searches are becoming increasingly common across the country,” he said, because more people will apply if they know their candidacy will be private.

If a university president is outed as a candidate for a job elsewhere while negotiating with donors “it can put a chill on donations” and poison their relationship with their current employers, Hadley said.

“The University of Nebraska is now part of the Big 10,” he said. “This is more than just playing football against Michigan and Michigan State. We’re part of a great academic conference.”

The chairman of the bill hearing the bill, Sen. Bill Avery, said NU has more “trouble with transparency than any other institution.

Proponents of the bill pointed to searches for heads of private companies, asking how that would ever work, while opponents noted private companies are a different animal than public, taxpayer-funded institutions.

NU Regent Tim Clare said the regents unanimously support the bill and would make the finalist public for vetting on campus before appointment. The 2007 compromise is no longer practical because highly-sought-after candidates want confidentiality, he said.

“This is an enormously important decision,” he said.

Avery questioned why the bill also applies to vice presidents, suggesting that was an overreach that might need to be amended out of the bill.

Wilber Sen. Russ Karpisek said people who really want to work for NU will apply anyway. But Clare said often top candidates weren’t looking for a new job, but are tapped by headhunters.

Tonn Ostegaard, CEO of Crete Carrier Corp. and chairman of the NU Foundation, said the same journalists who are fighting for transparency will protect the identity of anonymous sources.

Robert Duncan, chairman of Duncan Aviation, noted the search for top coaches is not open to the public, as well as large company searches.

“Let them do their job in private,” he said.

Dara Troutman, chief of staff for Milliken, said she’s been involved in the recruitment of about a dozen staffers, and one of the first questions asked by national search firms is whether the finalists will be public. She said at least 22 states have some kind of exemption for university presidents and chancellors, and there’s ample evidence that transparency puts NU at a disadvantage in attracting the best candidates.

Journalism professor John Bender testified on behalf of the UNL Faculty Senate, which voted to oppose the bill. He said it cultivates distrust and secrecy is contrary to the public nature of a university. A university president is accountable to the public and must be comfortable with public scrutiny.

Meanwhile, searches for deans and vice chancellors are open, which he said “seems upside-down.” Evidence that a closed process would hurt NU is mostly anecdotal and comes from for-profit headhunters who have a financial interest in promoting that view, Bender said.

Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer asked whether publicizing one finalist isn’t transparent, and said he had a hard time distinguishing the difference between identifying one and four candidates.

“It concerns me that we would not be interested in attracting the best candidate,” he said.

Bender said only identifying one finalist doesn’t allow the press and public to compare finalists.

“At that point it’s kind of a done deal,” he said.
Alan Peterson, an attorney representing Nebraska media, said the bill would be a “rather enormous change” from a 150-year tradition of open records in Nebraska. He questioned the wisdom of amending a 2007 compromise for “a single complaining party.”

“I guess a deal is not necessarily a deal for some folks,” he said. “We ought to stick with our open government here.”

Allowing public inspection only after a single finalist has been selected is “pretty meaningless,” he said. He noted NU’s attempt to keep its last presidential search private when regents met in a Kansas City airport.

“I love the university but it’s got a lousy record on this,” Peterson said.

Dave Bundy, president of the Media of Nebraska and editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, said the public deserve some idea how the regents will choose the next president.

“What do we get if we win this top-secret competition for top talent? We get a president who prefers to sneak around behind his or her current employer’s back. We get an executive who feels he or she deserves special treatment because it’s hard to balance a job and a job search the way that almost everyone else in the real world needs to. And we get a leader of a system dedicated to intellectual curiosity who got the job through a process that was designed to quash all intellectual curiosity.”

The current system is a reasonable compromise that is already an exception to the open records law, Bundy said. The bill would make public one finalist, which he described as “little more than a condescending pat on the head of the public.”

“What, exactly, is a finalist?” he said. “It sounds a lot like the hire.”

Reneging on the 2007 compromise would be the equivalent of saying “all the cool kids are doing it,” Bundy said.

“It’s wrong and it’s lazy and not what Nebraska and Nebraskans are all about,” he said.

Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause Nebraska, said with rumors flying around that the governor is interested in the job and the next president’s views on stem cell research will be key could be put to rest with an open selection process.

Gretna Sen. John Murante questioned how many people would want their employers to know they’re in the market for a new job.

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org. Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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