The governing board for Washington State University doesn’t intend to reveal the names of candidates for that university’s top job before appointing a new president next year.
The governing board for Washington State University doesn’t intend to reveal the names of candidates for that university’s top job before appointing a new president next year, an official heading the college’s national search process says.
Michael C. Worthy, a member of the WSU Board of Regents and chairman of the university’s 25-member Presidential Search Advisory Committee, said that following the months-long process to identify and consider candidates, he expects regents to privately “narrow the list” of eventual finalists before voting in a public session to name a new president.
“We stopped using the word ‘transparent’ when we describe the process, because it really isn’t transparent and it can’t be,” Worthy said in an interview. “But what we are saying is that we guarantee an inclusive process.”
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The search, expected to culminate with the appointment of WSU’s 11th president by the end of the spring semester, includes seven meetings statewide to obtain feedback about characteristics the public wants in WSU’s next president, Worthy said.
The search committee and Isaacson, Miller — a consulting firm hired to coordinate the process — will identify multiple candidates nationwide and accept applications before recommending a short list of candidates for regents to consider, Worthy said. Regents will vote on the appointment in public, he said, but the other finalists won’t be revealed.
“None of this process is subject to the open-meetings act except the final meeting to vote on appointing a president,” Worthy said.
Worthy described the largely confidential process as necessary for attracting high-caliber candidates and ensuring WSU, and by extension, the state, aren’t held liable for potentially damaging candidates’ reputations.
Candidates for such jobs often haven’t informed their employers that they are considering other opportunities. Revealing candidates’ names could harm their professional standing or reputations, Worthy contends.
“The negative impacts that could occur for those who were not the successful candidate in this process are real, and that’s just an unacceptable outcome to us,” Worthy said.
WSU’s selection process was crafted with help by an assistant state attorney general, who reviewed the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and discussed its requirements with WSU regents, Worthy said.
The open meetings act, established to ensure transparency in government decision-making, requires that public governing bodies deliberate and take actions on hiring and other decisions during public meetings.
The law allows boards to meet privately “to evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for public employment.” But should a board conduct a ballot in secret or even come to “a collective positive or negative decision” behind closed doors, the law states that action “shall be null and void.”
Worthy’s explanation of the search process came during an interview with The Seattle Times after the University of Washington Board of Regents’ appointment Oct. 13 of Ani Mari Cauce as its 33rd president after conducting a similar national search and appointment process.
UW regents appointed Cauce, a popular assistant professor who climbed the ranks to interim president, without publicly identifying or deliberating on other finalists during a process that has since raised questions among some open-government advocates. Officials for the UW, which held similar closed-selection processes before appointing its past several presidents, believe they followed the OPMA.
Presidential appointments at colleges and universities often draw criticism — and sometimes legal actions — due to secrecy concerns.
In August, a professor emeritus of the University of Iowa sued that school’s presidential-search committee, alleging open-meetings violations. The same professor also sued the university for open-meetings violations in 2007, eventually winning a $66,000 settlement under which the school also admitted violating the law.
In May, University of Wyoming trustees approved an open-search process to identify finalists for that college’s president’s job after several news agencies sued the university two years ago for a previously confidential selection process.
Public universities and colleges in Washington have differed in their approaches for presidential searches.
This year, The Evergreen State College in Olympia identified and brought four finalists to campus for public interviews for that school’s top job before trustees appointed Whitman College President George Bridges.
Western Washington University’s board of trustees, which is starting a national search to replace President Bruce Shepard, who plans to retire next year, has yet to determine whether it will publicly identify candidates, WWU spokesman Paul Cocke said.
The last time WWU conducted an executive search, about eight years ago, trustees opted for a closed process that didn’t publicly name or interview finalists, Cocke said.
“The feeling amongst trustees then was if you’re trying to get sitting university presidents to apply, having them come to campus for open interviews has a chilling effect,” Cocke said. “It could limit some quality candidates from applying.”
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a Kirkland City Council member, said the City Council publicly interviews finalists for municipal appointments to ensure transparency.
“We don’t get a lot of people coming out to watch us make an appointment to the parks board,” he said. “But a president of a state university? Yes, that’s definitely something a lot of people would be interested in sitting in on an interview for.”
Even though WSU’s process largely will be confidential, Worthy contends it can be conducted both legally and inclusively.
For instance, the search consultant can help regents in “communicating with candidates to gauge their interests and needs” during the finalist process, helping regents avoid potential OPMA prohibitions, Worthy said.
Some open-government advocates say such secrecy undermines the spirit of the OPMA, which is “meant to allow the public a seat in the decision-making process,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard, a media lawyer with the Allied Law Group
Washington’s open-meetings law states anyone who successfully challenges a decision made in secret can be awarded attorneys’ fees, and a court can impose $100 fines against individual board members for “knowingly” violating the law.
“In the history of the OPMA, nobody has ever been fined,” said Kathy George, a media lawyer with the Seattle firm Harrison Benis. “The Legislature really needs to put some teeth into the OPMA.”
Changing an illegally derived outcome is also largely unheard of, George said, as governing boards can simply ratify a secret decision with a public vote later.