Flawed hiring processes for the top jobs at the University of Washington and Washington State University keep the public in the dark.

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WASHINGTON State University has followed the University of Washington in picking a well-qualified, inspiring candidate as president. But the state’s two top-tier universities trod a well-worn path of secrecy in making those selections, one that makes a mockery of Washington’s government transparency laws.

The state Open Public Meetings Act requires hiring of public officials to be done in the open. If the public’s interests were paramount, universities would publicly announce the presidential candidate short list, give faculty, staff, alumni and the community a say, and require their boards of regents to vote in an open session.

That’s how The Evergreen State College selected its president, former Whitman College President George Bridges, last year. Seattle Colleges announced three finalists for its open chancellor position last month. Western Washington University is also using an open process; finalists will be announced soon.

Contrast that with the UW and WSU. The UW’s Board of Regents advanced just one name — Ana Mari Cauce — before appointing her as president. Emails obtained by Seattle Times reporter Lewis Kamb suggest the regents’ formal hiring of Cauce was a sham, with the decision made days before in private. That would violate the Open Public Meetings Act.

In picking Kansas State University’s Kirk Schulz as the Cougars’ 11th president last week, the WSU Board of Regents also skirted the spirit, if not the letter, of the open-meetings mandate. Regents hid finalists’ names, voted on “Candidate C” — Schulz — and called that transparency. Former State Auditor Brian Sonntag said the Open Public Meetings Act requires “the opposite of what they did.

“It’s a public decision, a public body, and people have a right to know what this public body is doing,” Sonntag said.

It’s a public decision, a public body, and people have a right to know what this public body is doing.” - Brian Sonntag

UW and WSU defend the secrecy as necessary to draw stellar candidates. Perhaps. Other local universities don’t think so.

More important, secrecy is not what the state law — passed by initiative to the people — demands. A previous state audit analyzing a case similar to Schulz’s hiring found it violated the Open Public Meetings law. And a legal advisory by the state’s municipal research center suggested that a “secret ballot” selection process, similar to Schulz’s hiring, violated the law.

Deputy State Auditor Jan Jutte said WSU’s hiring process will be on her staff’s list when it conducts an accountability audit of the university next month. “It’s all about being open to your citizens,” said Jutte. “If you are not, your citizens have reason to question whether you are acting in their interests.”

Cauce and Schulz appear to be excellent picks to head the state’s flagship universities. But the ends don’t justify the means in keeping the public in the dark.