Student editor threatens legal action against LSU for private presidential search

LOUISIANA — The editor-in-chief of Louisiana State University’s student newspaper is threatening legal action against the school’s private foundation and the university system for withholding names of its presidential candidates.

Andrea Gallo, editor-in-chief of The Daily Reveille, had requested the names of any and all applicants for the top job at LSU, a newly created position that will replace the president of LSU System and chancellor of its flagship campus in Baton Rouge.

“LSU has been anything but transparent throughout this process,” Gallo said in a statement. “At the end of the day, LSU prides itself on being a public research university. It’s only fair that LSU lets citizens take a look at the candidates and offer their input. If LSU is meant to be a beacon for the residents of Louisiana, I don’t understand why the residents haven’t been included in the president search at all.”

LSU has denied the Reveille and other local news organizations’ requests for candidates’ names and applications. The school says it does not have the applications as the search was conducted through the school’s private foundation in consultation with a private firm, William R. Funk and Associates.

Scott Sternberg, a Louisiana attorney and a member of the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network, is representing Gallo. On Monday, Sternberg wrote a letter to Shelby McKenzie, LSU System’s lead counsel, in which he called LSU’s privacy tactics an “unprecedented attempt to keep these records secret” and a “violation of the spirit and letter of the Louisiana Public Records Law.”

Gallo’s letter asks LSU to seek an opinion from the state’s Attorney General by next Monday regarding the release of names. As a private citizen, Gallo cannot seek an opinion from Louisiana Attorney General James Caldwell — it has to come from a state official or entity.

Caldwell has not received an opinion request from LSU as of Wednesday, according to spokesman Steven Hartmann. LSU declined to say whether it was planning to submit that request, citing that it was a pending legal matter.

Sternberg said in an interview that LSU was clever to add another layer of protection from the public eye by using its private foundation to contract out the presidential search duties to another private, Dallas-based firm, William Funk & Associates. But he argues that private firms that perform a normally public business, such as a search for a highly public figure, are still subject to public records law.

Both a former Reveille editor and a former LSU board member, Sternberg said he understands the reasoning on both sides.

“I understand why they would want to keep the names secret — I just don’t agree,” Sternberg said. “I understand they want to attract the best candidates — I just don’t agree.”

Also on Monday, the university’s search committee named F. King Alexander, president of California State University at Long Beach, as the sole finalist. The LSU System’s Board of Supervisors are scheduled to review the nomination during special meeting March 27.

Although Sternberg said Gallo’s letter arrived slightly after the release of Alexander’s name, he suspects LSU was on high alert because the Reveille’s requests were diligently sent to all parties involved in the search.

“That kind of put them on notice that we weren’t really messing around here and we were going to go after those records,” he said. “They may have known we were coming.”

Other news organizations have asked for the names and been denied as well. LSU also denied a records request from The Advocate, Baton Rouge’s local paper, in February. The school’s Faculty Senate also has adopted a proposal that asked for the applications to be released and questioned the reasoning for privacy.

Sternberg said it’s important for these names to be disclosed, even though a finalist has been named.

“Just because they’ve released one finalist doesn’t make what LSU did right,” he said, adding that other media outlets in the area should “pony up and not let this happen because of what might happen next time, because of the precedent that it sets for Louisiana.”

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