Law brings closed hearings to Michigan

MICHIGAN — In December, state lawmakers approved two pieces of legislation that give administrators at state universities the ability to hide portions of presidential searches from public scrutiny. Governor John Engler has since signed the bills into law.

It is a victory for university officials, who have pushed for laws to circumvent the state’s Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Acts, and who argue that when searching for leaders, especially leaders who hold prestigious positions as deans and presidents of other schools, making those candidates subject to public searches could frighten them off.

The two pieces of legislation allow state university officials to conduct portions of their searches for a new leader secretly. One allows university control boards and the search committees they appoint to go into closed session while interviewing candidates, reviewing applications or discussing qualifications. The other piece of legislation amends the state’s Freedom of Information Act to further close presidential searches.

As amended, the law now allows the boards to keep confidential any letters of recommendation or references concerning an applicant.

This amendment comes after a recent state appeals court ruling found that the Michigan State University Board of Trustees violated the Open Meetings Act by not making public the meetings of the board-appointed presidential search committee. The committee was empowered with the governmental authority of the board, said the court, and was hence subject to the state’s open meetings law.