As a new lawsuit settlement shows, the UW prioritizes expediency over public dialogue when picking a president.
ANA Mari Cauce has been an impressive University of Washington president thus far. She is a natural evangelist for one of the region’s most important public institutions, and adroitly navigated the protests and counter-protests wrought by public troll Milo Yiannopoulos.
Regardless of her performance, however, the process by which Cauce was selected as president was a bad one. One UW president after another has been selected without finalists’ names being disclosed. This time, the UW Board of Regents operated in such secrecy that the public only now — 19 months after Cauce was selected — learns this critical fact: she effectively was the only finalist for the job.
Doubly troubling is that the public learned that fact only because the Washington Coalition for Open Government sued the UW for allegedly violating the state open meetings act. The UW settled the case for $25,000 last week.
As reported by The Seattle Times, the discovery process in that lawsuit found that Cauce was the only name forwarded by a search committee to the Board of Regents. On the day she was formally named, the board met for three hours in private before emerging publicly to cast votes in what appeared to be a pre-scripted bit of theater. In fact, it was.
This is standard practice for the UW and a disturbing number of other universities, including Washington State University, which also kept finalists’ names secret in a 2015 search. The UW argues it won’t get the best candidates if finalists’ names are disclosed, and the job is too important not to get the best. Nevermind the other important jobs — from the Bellevue College president to the Seattle police chief — that were filled with a more transparent process.
In fact, the UW’s argument should be flipped: the presidency is too important for the broader university community — the 55,000 students; 79,000 faculty and staff; neighborhood; city; and state — to have it be conducted like a papal appointment, with the regents sending up a proverbial puff of white smoke when they conclude secret deliberations. The university’s vested interests deserve the right to meet, greet and grill candidates for the top job before the regents lock the door.
The regents don’t have a good record in that regard: a judge previously found they violated open meetings law 24 times in 2012 through 2014. Now, by sticking with this flawed selection process, they reinforce to the president that public transparency is not a priority. Luckily, Cauce is an open book, and doesn’t seem to have gotten the regents’ message.
The Legislature can force an open process, with finalists’ names disclosed. But lawmakers have stubbornly resisted this simple fix to state transparency laws, just as they have resisted calls to end the Legislature’s self-serving waiver from the Public Records Act.
Time for both positions to change.