Court rules presidential searches closed

\nMICHIGAN – The state supreme court ruled in June that a\npublic university’s presidential selection process need not be\nconducted in open meetings under state law.

The Lansing State Journal and the Detroit News\nfiled suit against Michigan State University in 1993 after officials\ndenied access to that year’s search proceedings.

In a 5-2 decision issued on June 15, the court decided in Federated\nPublications v. Michigan State University Board of Trustees,\n594 N.W. 2d 491 (Mich. 1999) that open proceedings would disrupt\nthe board’s search.

“We hold that the application of the [Michigan Open Meetings\nAct] to the internal operations of the university in selecting\na president infringes on defendant’s constitutional power to supervise\nthe institution,” Justice Maura D. Corrigan wrote for the\nmajority of the court. It held that because governing boards of\npublic universities are given authority by the state constitution\nto supervise each school, they are not subject to open meeting\nrequirements created by the state legislature.

Lisa Mikalonis, an attorney for the Michigan Press Association,\nsaid the court failed to prove that the university’s constitutional\nrights to supervise would be violated if searches were open.

She added that the salary of a state university president is\npaid by taxes.

“I have the right to be involved in the process,”\nshe said. “These people hold the purse strings to our dollars.”

The decision was particularly harsh for the newspapers, considering\nthe restrictive legislation passed in 1997 after the case began.\nGov. John Engler signed into law two bills that restricted the\nopenness of presidential searches. Both laws allow university\nofficials to conduct searches secretly, until the pool is reduced\nto five candidates. After that point, the process must be open,\naccording to Mikalonis. With the recent decision, however, it\nis uncertain if that law will apply.

The court’s opinion did say that all “formal sessions”\ninvolving the presidential search must be open because the state\nconstitution requires it, but informal sessions could remain closed.\nHowever, the opinion left the definitions of formal and informal\nsessions up to the university, a prospect that Mikalonis finds\npuzzling.

“The formal session could be the one with the last candidate,”\nshe said, explaining that the majority of the process would still\nbe completed behind closed doors.