LSU attorney tells presidential search committee to avoid creating public records

We were more than a little alarmed when we saw this story yesterday, about a search for the new president of the Louisiana State University system. According to a report by the Associated Press, at a meeting last week kicking off the search, LSU’s lawyer told the search committee to keep its discussions secret. Specifically:

LSU lawyer Shelby McKenzie also urged secrecy and told search committee members to avoid any written communication that could identify an individual candidate because it would be subject to public records laws.

The search consultant hired by the university system to guide the search, William Funk, also advised committee members to keep their lips sealed, “saying if names of contenders are leaked to the public, they likely would pull themselves from consideration rather than risk the attention in their current positions.” Funk is behind a number of high-profile university searches around the country, and boasts on his website of being called the “guru of higher education recruiting” by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It’s not illegal to avoid creating records that would be subject to state public records law, but encouraging public officials to do so certainly misses the spirit of what the laws are intended to address. (The LSU story is reminiscent of the disclosure that emerged last year during a lawsuit against the University of North Carolina, where the athletics department’s chief compliance officer testified that she, too, was advised not to commit information to writing so as to avoid creating a trail of publicly obtainable records.)

Louisiana state law exempts public universities from several parts of the state’s open records law — mostly records related to research. Records related to executive searches are not included in the exemption, making it clear the legislature intended those searches to occur in public, so that the state’s citizens could ensure the best man or woman is selected for a taxpayer-funded job that’s responsible for overseeing a major state operation. McKenzie and Funk’s advice goes directly against the legislature’s intent.

Of course, LSU isn’t the only school that would like its presidential search process to be a private process. In Michigan, public universities don’t have to follow open meetings laws when selecting a school’s president, thanks to a state Supreme Court ruling in 1999 that found open proceedings would be disruptive. At least three other states explicitly limit access to searches, and almost two dozen more have language that could allow closed searches. States like Florida, where schools must release the names of candidates vying for positions, are unfortunately rare.

For more on access to presidential searches, read this SPLC guide, which breaks down the arguments for and against open presidential searches.