As part of a lawsuit over whether the University of Washington violated the Open Public Meetings Act when it chose Ana Mari Cauce to be its next president, university officials said they had only one candidate.

Share story

When it came time to vote on a new president in October 2015, the University of Washington had only one candidate, then-interim president Ana Mari Cauce. All the otherswithdrew from consideration for the job.

That’s what the Washington Coalition for Open Government discovered after it sued the university for allegedly violating the Open Public Meetings Act when it voted to appoint Cauce.

Depositions taken in the case showed that among the other candidates, “none would be interviewed” until the regents “made an up-or-down decision” on Cauce, said Toby Nixon, president of the coalition.

“Essentially, there was only one candidate,” he said. “All of the candidates except for one effectively withdrew.” That made it appear that the regents had approved Cauce in secret, Nixon said.

In a settlement approved Thursday, the regents did not admit to any wrongdoing around the Cauce vote. The board also agreed to amend its bylaws and pay $25,000 to the coalition to help defray legal costs.

Nixon said the UW probably could have avoided being sued if it had publicly explained why regents were literally following a script when they made the motion to appoint Cauce.

“We still feel pretty strongly it should not have been necessary to file a lawsuit” to get at why the UW picked Cauce without a public discussion of other candidates, he said. “If the UW had simply been more upfront about it, it (the lawsuit) wouldn’t have been necessary.”

The depositions helped explain why emails and records showed that the chair of the UW’s Board of Regents and other key officials communicated as if they knew Cauce would be chosen to be the university’s next president days before the board publicly voted to appoint her.

Emails sent in the days and hours before the October 2015 public vote — including those written by Board of Regents Chairman Bill Ayer, search-committee Chairman Kenyon Chan, and John Thornburgh, a consultant who coordinated the UW’s presidential search — largely describe the board’s pending action as an announcement rather than an uncertain outcome.

The records also show Ayer drafted a script in advance of the board meeting that detailed which regents would make the motion to appoint Cauce, and which ones would second it.

At the time she was being considered, Cauce had worked for the university for nearly 30 years, including as provost — the second-in-command — and was widely considered a top candidate for the job. The university had done some preliminary interviews and had several potential finalists, Nixon said.

The UW officials deposed in the case would not say who the other candidates were, he said.

Nixon said he doesn’t understand why choosing a university president is “cloaked in secrecy — and not just here, but in other places, too.”

School districts pick their superintendents in public meetings from a list of finalists, as do cities when they choose a new city manager, Nixon said. But college and university officials often make the case that top-tier prospects won’t apply if their current employer learns they are looking for another job, he said, because “it looks like they’re being disloyal.”

“At the same time, it makes it very difficult for the public to know if the regents are making a good choice among the candidates they have,” he said. He noted that picking a president is the most important job the regents have.

On Thursday, board members discussed the settlement in a closed-door meeting before taking the vote to approve it, citing the need to discuss it in private because it was a legal matter.

After approving the settlement, the regents then amended their bylaws to include a requirement that the agenda and all supporting materials for their meetings be posted on the regents’ webpage on the same day they are delivered to members of the board. An attorney for the UW said that has been the university’s practice for some time.