LSU uses private foundation to conduct secret presidential search

LOUISIANA — Louisiana State University is keeping secret the names of more than 30 candidates competing to be the next president by conducting the search through its private foundation.

Last week, the school denied a local newspaper’s public records request for the names of applicants to head the public university.

The Advocate requested the applications after search consultant Bill Funk pointed to a stack of documents containing the names and qualifications of the candidates during a presidential search committee meeting earlier this month, according to the newspaper. Discussion about the candidates were then held in closed session.

In its request dated Feb. 5, the newspaper cited a Louisiana statute requiring that “each applicant for public position of authority” be made “available for public inspection.”

“If we read the law correctly — and I think we do — this kind of information is absolutely record,” said Mark Ballard, editor of The Advocate’s Capitol News Bureau.

LSU System Board of Supervisors attorney Shelby McKenzie issued a denial, saying the university didn’t have copies of the written applications submitted by candidates and therefore could not comply with the records request. It states that Funk’s firm, a private higher-ed search firm based in Texas, has custody of the records under contract with the LSU Foundation, a private nonprofit associated with but operating separately from the school.

LSU has indicated it will announce a sole finalist in June.

Faculty members joined the paper in asking for the records this week when the school’s Faculty Senate adopted a resolution asking for the applications and questioning the school’s reasoning for privacy. It cited a rule at the University of Wisconsin requiring advance disclosure of multiple candidates for university leadership positions, a requirement it claims hasn’t hurt Wisconsin’s ability to recruit presidents.

Ballard said the school has a history of selection administrators through a private process, including former LSU System President John Lombardi and LSU chancellors Sean O’Keefe and Michael Martin.

“The issue is they have been doing this for a long time,” Ballard said.

Scott Sternberg, a Louisiana attorney and former Board of Supervisors member, described the public records battle as a “total double-edged sword.” Efforts to make presidential searches private are becoming more common, he said.

“There’s a legitimate concern that the applicants, whether qualified or not, would not apply for the job if they knew it was public,” said Sternberg, a former Student Press Law Center fellow who has represented news-media clients. “There is a valid argument there. But I think that when you weigh that against the public’s right to know, that’s a very tough call.”

But Charles Davis, a media law professor at the University of Missouri who specializes in access to governmental information, said he doesn’t buy the “apocryphal story” for privatizing the presidential search.

“There is absolutely no argument I would buy to keeping the list of finalists secret,” Davis said. “The gymnastics that LSU is employing to maintain secrecy is extraordinary.”

He said he hasn’t heard of one case of retribution from a public official seeking employment elsewhere. In fact, Brady Deaton, the University of Missouri’s current chancellor, was promoted from provost shortly after being publicly named as a finalist for other jobs, he said.

“I would argue the publicity helped him,” he said. “[Administrators] are all grown-ups — they all understand job opportunities open up.”

Although the faculty senate’s action carries no legal threat, Davis said that the governing body can make an administrator’s job difficult.

“You ignore Faculty Senate at your peril,” Davis said.

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer. Contact Moore by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127