Policymakers | Trusteeship

Don’t close NU’s door

OMAHA WORLD-HERALD   |  February 6, 2014 by Editorial

The University of Nebraska Board of Regents perhaps has no greater responsibility than appointing the best possible NU president and confirming university chancellors.

That’s what its chairman, Howard Hawks, wrote in a Midlands Voices essay published in The World-Herald last week.

We couldn’t agree more.

Hawks and other regents also argue that state law should be changed so the university would only need to identify a single finalist for the job.

On that, we disagree.

The Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee is holding a public hearing today on Legislative Bill 1018, which would dismantle the law that allows Nebraskans to know the names of the finalists seeking the posts of NU president, vice president and campus chancellors.

The committee should reject this bill. Nebraskans need full confidence in the candidates who are being considered—and that requires knowing who they are.

Among the arguments given for increasing secrecy in this process: Top-tier candidates, secure in their present jobs, won’t apply if their names become public; some universities in other states close the doors on their searches; and a regent-appointed advisory committee would play an active role in the search.

NU’s president earns a $431,276 salary and, along with the campus chancellors, is among the state’s highest-paid public employees. He or she will oversee a $2.3 billion operation, with 50,000 students in a four-campus system that is among the largest recipients of state tax dollars.

Nebraskans who pay these bills deserve to know who is being considered for NU’s top job.

Will the candidates have academic backgrounds or come from outside academia? How do they see the new Innovation Campus factoring into Nebraska’s jobs of tomorrow? What strategies do they propose for moving NU into the top ranks of scientific research? What ideas do they offer to manage costs and keep an NU education affordable for Nebraska families?

Nebraska’s current hiring process has worked, protecting applicants from publicity until they reach the finalist stage. Florida legislators have looked at adopting something similar.

If a would-be finalist fears telling his current employer that he’s interested in another opportunity—or fears being identified and not getting the new job—is that individual really going to be the best Nebraska can do?

Following the lead of private schools, some public universities have chosen secretive processes in their searches. Ohio and Michigan are among those being cited as examples to follow behind those closed doors.

In Iowa, the Board of Regents discloses its finalists. Tom Evans, general counsel for the Iowa board, said open interviews have been held for at least the past five searches and didn’t adversely affect the outcomes.

An open process, with candidates willing to put their names forward, inspires public confidence, says Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the Washington-based nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Secret searches stem “from a very unfortunate sense of insecurity among the institutions,” much to the benefit of job seekers, Poliakoff told The World-Herald.

“When a great university like the University of Nebraska is holding a search, (interested candidates) can have a conversation with their own governing boards. Most institutions are going to be quite understanding if a sitting leader wants to be considered for another position,” he said.

“I know of a number of searches that ended very, very well that were quite transparent.”

If LB 1018 becomes law, then it will be critically important that the regents make good on their pledge to engage the pubic. But what about the next time? Would future regents share that commitment?

Hawks, in his essay, wrote of the need to “balance two vitally important priorities: the public’s right to know, and the university’s ability to attract outstanding talent.”

The current law, identifying up to four finalists, strikes such a balance.

Denying taxpayers, parents, students and faculty the chance to know who is in the running for this key post tips the scales in the wrong direction.


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