In 2004, a University of Nebraska search committee went a long way to keep a secret in looking for a new NU president — 194 miles, to be exact.
That’s the driving distance from Lincoln to Kansas City, Missouri, where committee members held private meetings with seven NU presidential candidates (and an eighth later in Omaha). It eventually took a state attorney general’s opinion for Nebraskans to find out who was interviewed.
It’s important to remember this fondness for secrecy as regents again press the Legislature to impose more restrictions on what Nebraskans could know about the people being considered for top jobs at their public university.
It’s important to remember, too, that the current compromise system, with public identification and review of four finalists, was created in 2007 with the university’s full-throated support.
And it’s important to remember that during the search that found NU President Hank Bounds in 2014, then-Regents Chairman Howard Hawks said that while more fish might have been caught in a less-public net, “I can’t say the law doesn’t work.”
Yet some now want the university to renege on the compromise it agreed to just a few years ago.
Tomorrow, the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Legislative Bill 1109 — a proposal to sharply curtail a law that works.
It’s at least the fifth time since 2004 that the university and other agencies have tried to make public hiring more clandestine. Senators would do Nebraskans a real service by rejecting it.
LB 1109 would give the public the name and résumé of only a single finalist for posts such as president and campus chancellors. Taxpayers who fund the university would get 30 days to evaluate this lone “priority candidate.”
In a Midlands Voices essay on Page 5B today, Regents Chairman Kent Schroeder says LB 1109 “doesn’t eliminate the tremendously valuable role that faculty, staff and students, Nebraskans, and the news media have in actively participating in university leadership searches and vetting finalists.”
But how could Nebraskans evaluate whether that one choice was the best when they wouldn’t even know who the other candidates were?
LB 1109’s boosters claim secret searches are necessary because it’s difficult to find enough qualified candidates willing to have their names made public as one of four finalists.
But if disclosure scares off those hopefuls, so would the chance of being the only applicant publicly identified, then rejected — unless the fix were in and that 30-day vetting period was just for show.
Timidity of candidates is a common rationale offered by those who benefit from such secret searches. Not the schools, mind you, but the applicants and the search firms that recommend them.
Universities across the country “have been able to attract an extraordinary slate of candidates with open searches,” says Michael Poliakoff, a former university vice president now with the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
“Great institutions — and the University of Nebraska is a great institution — should position themselves with a sense of self-confidence in the opportunity their leadership positions offer,” he advises.
Restricting public input, as LB 1109 would do, shows neither self-confidence nor much regard for the extraordinary support Nebraskans give to their public university — support that comes from tax dollars, donations and families who entrust NU’s institutions with their kids’ futures.
All these Nebraskans should be able to size up more than a single candidate.
We should be able to see for ourselves how widely the candidate net was cast, assess the finalists’ qualifications, learn their views on preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow, know their strategies for moving NU into the top ranks of scientific research and hear how the candidates plan to keep an NU education affordable.
Today’s law opens the hiring door to all Nebraskans. LB 1109 would slam it in their faces.
Maybe that’s a good deal for the job seekers and the politicians who want to hire them. But it’s a lousy deal for Nebraskans who care about their university.
State senators should close the door on this bill and keep a law that works.