It’s encouraging that University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds has promised that “everything that can be open will be” in the search for a new chancellor for the Lincoln campus.
Let’s hope he gets some good advice. The university has a poor track record when it comes to openness.
The most recent example was the opinion released earlier this month by Attorney General Doug Peterson that NU officials had violated the state’s open meetings law during the search for a new president.
Just a year or two earlier, it took a request by the Daily Nebraskan, which had to go to the attorney general again to pry open UNL’s aborted plan to privatize health care on the university campus.
And the list goes on.
University officials already have made perfectly clear that they don’t believe Nebraska’s open meetings law applies to the search for a chancellor.
“The chancellors are presidential appointments, and the president will put together an advisory committee to assist with the search, but that committee is not governed by the Open Meetings Act,” said NU spokeswoman Melissa Lee.
Bounds could, of course, go beyond the requirements of the open meetings law.
And he should.
Taxpayers support UNL, after all — and an open search will produce a better outcome.
Unfortunately, there are powerful forces in the world of higher education that keep trying to force the doors closed on searches for top leaders.
The usual assertion — with no actual evidence — is that an open process in which the names of finalists are announced will mean a smaller pool of applicants.
A more likely explanation of the desire for secrecy is that insiders want to control the process, and some applicants may want to avoid the discomfiture felt by finalists who are not selected.
“It is typically for the advantage of the candidate rather than the institution,” Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, told the Harrisburg Patriot-News in 2013.
“A confident and great institution should really be setting its own terms rather than deferring to candidates who understandably want to spare themselves the embarrassment of possibly being a finalist and not getting a final offer.”
Poliakoff pointed out that being selected as a finalist should actually be seen as a plus for a candidate’s resume.
It’s common knowledge that academic administrators will seek new challenges at certain stages in their career. An open search for top leaders should be the norm. Being a finalist in the search for a university president or chancellor should be a mark of distinction in the same way that making the final four in college basketball or football is an occasion for pride.
Although the legal necessity for openness in the search for a new UNL chancellor may be ambiguous, providing more transparency to the process of finding a new chancellor is in the public’s interest.