Bill would change university candidate searches

The Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony Feb. 6 on a bill that would change public records requirements for certain university job candidates’ application materials.

Current law requires job application materials of finalist for employment by a public body to be public record when the final four candidates are selected.

LB1018, sponsored by Kearney Sen. Galen Hadley, would make an exception for certain positions at the University of Nebraska. The bill would reduce to one the number of finalists for the position of president necessary to trigger the release of candidate application materials.

The bill also would apply to finalists for vice president or chancellor positions who are submitted by the university president.

Revealing finalists’ names during a public search for top positions at universities is becoming a thing of the past, Hadley said. Top candidates may narrow their search to schools with closed searches, he said, especially presidents of other universities.

“The main argument for a closed search is that you will get a better pool of people applying for that position,” Hadley said. “One of the reasons that you try and get sitting presidents in the pool is that they have experience at these complicated jobs.”

Tim Clare, past chairman and member of the Nebraska Board of Regents, testified in support of the bill. He said requiring the board to name the top four finalists for the position puts the university at a competitive disadvantage.

University presidents would be unwilling to jeopardize their standing at their current schools, Clare said, and do not want to compromise their institutions by being identified as a candidate elsewhere.

“This is why many other states provide for university searches similar to what we propose,” Clare said. “All Nebraskans expect us to find the best possible individuals to serve in these critical leadership positions.”

University of Nebraska Foundation chairman Tonn Ostergard also testified in support of the bill, saying the board of regents could be counted on to choose the right candidate.

“We have entrusted the governance of the university to the elected members of the board of regents,” Ostergard said. “Let’s let them do their job without encumbering the process. Anything less would be a disservice to the university and the citizens of Nebraska.”

John Bender, professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, testified in opposition to the bill on behalf of the UNL faculty senate executive committee.

Bender said faculty also want the best person to lead the university, but are concerned about depriving the public of an opportunity to compare top candidates for the position. The bill runs contrary to the public nature of a university, he said, and a closed search could lead to cynicism about the selection process among the public.

“Where secrecy is the rule, those doubts gain a foothold and start to erode the public trust,” Bender said.

Rose Ann Shannon, news director of KETV in Omaha, also opposed the bill, saying students, faculty and the public have a right to know who is being considered to lead the university. She said the bill could lead to “creeping government secrecy.”

“I’ve seen the good that has come from openness and I’ve seen the harm that comes from secrecy,” Shannon said. “As a lifelong Nebraskan, I think [a closed search] sells our state and our university system short.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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