Point and Counterpoint: Closed UWYO Presidential Search Process

By Gregory Nickerson
February 6, 2013

In the interest of robust debate, Capitol Beat presents two opinion pieces regarding the issue of a closed presidential search for the next University of Wyoming president.

The pieces come from Steve Klein at the Wyoming Liberty Group, a policy group in Cheyenne; and from Dave Bostrom, president of the UW Trustees.

The UW Board of Trustees followed the advice of executive search firms to use a closed search process to select the president who will replace Tom Buchanan next fall. In November, media outlets including the Casper Star-Tribune, the Associated Press, and Cheyenne Newspapers filed a lawsuit asking for the names of finalists to be released. The UW faculty senate last week sided with the board of trustees to maintain the closed process.

Albany County District Court Judge Jeffrey Donnell ruled that the names must be released. Upon that news, two of the eight remaining candidates withdrew themselves from the process. Another two candidates will withdraw unless confidentiality is maintained through legislative action.

Today the Senate passed House Bill 223 — “Public records-institutions of higher education” with a vote of 23 to 7. The measure exempts institutions of higher education from releasing identifying information in presidential searches if doing so is contrary to the public interest. The House passed the same bill with a vote of 41 to 17.

As with any controversy, there are multiple sides from which to view the issue. Is the public interest better served by securing the best possible candidate through a closed search process, or through open discussion of the merits of each candidate, or finalist candidate? For the last few days, lobbyists from UW and the media have made their case to legislators in the Capitol.

During a press conference today, Gov. Matt Mead said he didn’t know whether he would sign HB 223 or not. He said he understood both the need for openness in selecting a leader for Wyoming’s four-year public university, but he also had concerns about changing course midway on a search that the university began with the promise of confidentiality to applicants.

“I need some more discussion on this. I’m torn on it,” Mead said.

The opinion pieces are presented below:

House Bill 223 and Secrecy’s Slippery Slope

By Steve Klein, Wyoming Liberty Group

House Bill 223 would modify Wyoming’s open records law to give the trustees of the University of Wyoming and trustees of our community colleges the discretion to keep applications, letters of recommendation, references and any other information “relating to the process of searching for and selecting the president” of the institution secret.  The bill is a response to a lawsuit filed by various Wyoming media outlets demanding disclosure of candidates in the search for the new president for the University of Wyoming.  On January 23, Albany County District Judge Jeffrey Donnell ordered that the trustees must “release the names, current employers and the dates when each finalist is scheduled to visit the university.

Last week, when HB223 was introduced on the House floor after passing the House Minerals committee 9-0 (audio of the House floor discussion is at the end of this segment), Majority Leader Kermit Brown argued that the board of trustees of UW would have better applicants if searches were allowed to be held in secret.  Of the eight finalists for the UW presidency, “two sitting presidents withdrew, and two provosts withdrew” following the outcome of the lawsuit, according to Brown. HB223 passed final reading in the House with a 41-18 vote, and late last week passed the Senate Education Committee 5-0.

The media is, naturally, upset about bill. I believe their counter-arguments are solid, specifically against the proponents’ central assertion that qualified individuals will not apply for the job if they risk sowing ill will with their current employer and employees if they are revealed and the job does not work out. As the Wyoming Tribune Eagle put it: “[i]f UW hires a president in secret, won’t he or she leave Wyoming in secret too? It would seem the candidates’ commitments to their current schools is shaky at best. Surely the people of this state expect more from their new president.”

Indeed, the argument that the position is so important that it requires secrecy weighs just as favorably for disclosure as it does against it. Running UW is an enormous task, as is running a local community college, but all of these institutions are funded largely with taxpayer money. Even in the private sector, public oversight has caused numerous shake-ups after questionable hires. Last spring, Yahoo fired CEO Scott Thompson after it was revealed by a vigilant media that he embellished his résumé. It would be far better for public institutions if the public had a place in vetting their leaders.

To a limited extent, I am glad that the bill puts the responsibility in the hands of community college trustees, giving them the discretion over what to disclose. Community college trustees are elected, and if they choose to keep the presidential job search a secret under the law, they will be accountable at election time. If the legislature were to amend another part of the open records law instead, it would require trustees to keep the process secret, and give them some political cover. So this, at least, is a good part of HB223.

This bill, however, was brought in reaction to the actions of the UW Trustees, and they are not elected, but appointed by the Governor. The UW presidency is already three steps removed from the vote of the people: an elected governor, his appointed trustees, and their appointed president. Secrecy would take this removal even farther, allowing no immediate oversight of the Trustees’ most important duty. It is of course possible the Governor may be held accountable come election time, but he is so far removed from the selection process that this hardly seems like an issue that would change many votes.

What’s most disturbing to me is that nationally we’re facing increased disclosure and red tape around the activities of Joe and Jane Taxpayer, from their political speech to, more recently, gun ownership.  Meanwhile, our leaders here in Wyoming aim to shroud public servants’ official duties under the law. These are two sides of the same coin, one that’s not the currency of a free society.

Alas, one issue raised on the House floor during debate over HB223 was that it might not go far enough. Representative Keith Gingery pointed out that Wyoming counties and towns face the same problems in their searches for city planners and the like. “I’m just wondering if you want to look at this more expansively,” he said.  This was a thoughtful question meant to reveal the bill’s weaknesses (Rep. Gingery voted against the bill), but if HB223 becomes law it foreshadows an even more expansive gutting of Wyoming’s open records laws.

Secrecy is a slippery slope, and if HB223 becomes law based on the weak arguments of its proponents we can certainly expect more exceptions to transparency down the road.

(This piece is an updated version of a Wyoming Liberty Group weblog post originally dated Jan. 30, 2013.)


Confidential Search Gives UW Best Chance for Success

By Dave Bostrom, UW Board of Trustees

When President Tom Buchanan announced last year that he would step down as the leader of the University of Wyoming, a significant burden was placed on the UW Board of Trustees. As the entity charged by law with employing the president of our state’s only four-year university, we recognized immediately our great responsibility to find a suitable successor to President Buchanan. Most of us believe the selection of UW’s 24th president will be the most important decision we make during our tenure as trustees.

From the start, we determined that obtaining as wide and deep a pool of candidates as possible would give us the best chance of finding the right person for the job. Our research showed that the best way to guarantee such a pool would be to use a confidential process, under which none of the candidates’ names would be revealed to the public. In fact, it became clear that many premier candidates simply wouldn’t apply without confidentiality, and we wanted to attract the strongest field we could.

At the same time, we recognized the importance of meaningful public input. We established a process whereby the field of applicants would be narrowed by two separate committees, consisting of members of the public, students, faculty, staff and trustees.

The search process has been a success. UW received 88 applicants for president. Many of those candidates applied after being recruited by our search consultant, Greenwood /Asher and Associates, one of a handful of top-flight search firms in the country. The applicants included a number of sitting presidents at other universities. By comparison, the University of Florida, using the very same search firm, at basically the same time but in a public process, received fewer than 20 applications — none of them sitting presidents of American institutions.

The first search committee narrowed the field of 88 to 15. That included four sitting presidents, nine provosts, one dean and one non-academic candidate. In January, the second screening committee interviewed the 15 candidates and agreed to move eight of them to the next step for reference checks. Included in that eight were two sitting presidents, five provosts and one non-academic candidate. The plan was for the second committee to meet again and produce a list of at least five finalists to present to the full board, which would then do another round of interviews and select the next president by the end of February.

Unfortunately, the process has been disrupted. A lawsuit by three media organizations who disagree with the confidential process resulted in a District Court ruling that, absent an explicit exemption in statute, we must publicly identify the finalists. As a result, from the list of eight candidates being considered by the second search committee, one sitting president and one provost have withdrawn. The other sitting president and one provost have said they will withdraw unless confidentiality can be guaranteed. We have four remaining candidates — not through the process of a screening committee narrowing the field based on Wyoming priorities, but as a result of the court ruling.

House Bill 223, which has passed the Wyoming House and the Senate, would provide the specific exemption in statute to allow the university to return to the confidential process that was working so well. It would allow us to possibly get some of those who’ve withdrawn to reconsider, and it would allow us to keep our word. We assured candidate confidentiality, and a promise is a promise. Without the bill, there would be nothing to prevent an individual or group from using the court ruling to make public all 88 of the applicants’ names.

Is it possible for us to find a superb president from the current pool of four? Yes, but it would be better to have the odds a little more in Wyoming’s favor and not have our options limited.

Some press reports have suggested it was an open process which allowed President Buchanan to become UW’s 23rd president in 2005, because his name was added to the list of finalists after public disclosure of the list showed he wasn’t on it. But the fact is, we were fortunate it turned out as well as it did. Once President Buchanan’s name was added to the list, every one of the other finalists dropped out. Fortunately, we got a terrific president even with a broken process. That’s not something we can expect every time.

The trustees understand the significant public interest in the selection of UW’s next president. But our responsibility is to get the best person for the job — not to satisfy public curiosity. The selection of the next president is not an election or a popularity contest, where the candidates are paraded in a public forum and the one with the most public support is chosen. As trustees, we were appointed by the governor to make this decision, and we’re intent upon finding a person with the demonstrated skills and a track record of success to hire for the job.

It’s also worth noting that our UW Faculty Senate, presented with a proposed resolution calling for the search process to identify finalists, rejected the proposal on a 33-21 vote. We appreciate that vote of confidence and trust in the board’s chosen approach.

We recognize the arguments in favor of openness. We don’t ascribe any nefarious motives to those who want us to identify the finalists. But the bottom line is that a confidential process offers the best opportunity for us to hire an outstanding president of UW, and House Bill 223 will give us that chance.

— Worland businessman Dave Bostrom is president of the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees.

Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

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Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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  1. The irony is not lost on us. . .

    Since, thus far, Wyoming’s decision-makers have been successful in establishing secrecy and opacity as the essential elements in selecting UW’s next president, they might now want to consider taking their efforts to the next level.

    For example, after the president is selected, perhaps that person’s identity could remain secret and the president’s office could be moved from Old Main to a basement bunker in the Cheney Center. That way, the new president’s identity might be revealed only by the UW Foundation, and only with the express permission of the UW Board of Trustees on a “need-to-know” basis to potential major donors and power-brokers.

    A further advantage would be that the next time the university’s president is named in a lawsuit for denying a renowned progressive educator a place to speak on campus or the next time a kerfuffle occurs about whether UW’s president has had an artwork prematurely removed, based on a complaint from a good-ole-boy Wyoming energy executive, UW’s legal team could claim (with, I believe the legal term is “plausible deniability”) that they do not know the identity of UW’s president.

  2. Many thanks to Wyofile for having this important discussion. Transparency around this decision is needed, not only because of the implications the University has for state spending and government resources but also because of the implications this decision will have for students and faculty for years to come. I went to a private college, which is not subject to a public records act, but my college made the decision to make Presidential hiring public. Finalists came to campus, gave speeches, and their CVs were available on tables in public areas for all to look at. Regardless of whether the bill is signed by the Governor, UW should think about ways to make the process more transparent and open and should welcome – not restrict – feedback from students, faculty, alumni, and other stakeholders.