Behind closed doors for your own ‘good’

The defense University presidents private hiring of falls flat, hard.

A bill introduced last week in the Legislature would, if passed, keep confidential the presidential selection process –

exempting the University from the Data Practices Act and the Open Meeting Law. This is a radical idea that would harm public information policies. This secrecy is unnerving because there would be no accountability. Without knowing the names of the finalists, there is no assurance of a fair hiring process. There is also no assurance the candidates are diverse – including women and other underrepresented communities.

Questions about a candidate’s background also come up during the hiring process. Newspapers are the fourth branch of government, but they can’t do their jobs without a proper process.

Minnesota media organizations sued the University Board of Regents in November 2002 for not releasing names of candidates and holding closed meetings in search of a new president. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of media, and the board had to release the names of the candidates. If the bill passes, this would be a huge step backward. The argument supporting the bill is that no qualified president already in a similar job will apply if the process is public. But the law allows the initial process to be confidential. It’s the finalists – the top three or four – who are revealed. That’s not nearly as damaging to a reputation as it would be if, say, the Harvard president applied and ranked low in the finalists. The argument supporting this bill is not justified; it is lacking in evidence.

The bill also would be a step backward in public information laws. If the University is exempt from open meeting laws, then why wouldn’t other government entities go forward with such recommendations? This is piggybacking off Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s plans to privatize public information and it is absolutely unacceptable. Last, but not least, students are affected by a president and his or her decisions. From strategic positioning to an on-campus stadium, a president’s priorities affect student life and quality of education. Students deserve to have an open process in which they can become comfortable and trusting with a candidate. From there, the University community can improve.