Days after University of Nebraska president's position becomes vacant, legislature moves to close future executive searches

NEBRASKA — A bill introduced this month would allow the University of Nebraska to keep all presidential candidates confidential except the single finalist.

Under current law, candidates are kept private until the search is narrowed to a final pool of at least four applicants, who must be disclosed. Legislative Bill 1018, which is scheduled for a committee hearing Feb. 6, would allow the University of Nebraska Board of Regents to conduct closed searches for university presidents, vice presidents and chancellors.

The bill was introduced one week after University of Nebraska system President James Milliken announced that he would be leaving Nebraska to become chancellor of the City University of New York.

Advocates for the bill say a closed search would allow for a better pool of applicants, including those who may not be willing to jeopardize their current job by publicly seeking another. On the other hand, opponents urge for full disclosure and public involvement in the decision.

“To me it’s real simple,” said Howard Hawks, the chairman of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents and a supporter of the legislation. “The press is interested in having information, and the regents are interested in reaching the best decision on the best possible candidate. And while there’s some commonality in that, there’s also some conflict in that. So my view would be you’ve elected us to govern the university. Give us the chance to remove this restriction.”

State Sen. Galen Hadley, who introduced the bill on behalf of the Board of Regents, said this is a “tough subject” because he understands the other side, but people have to weigh full disclosure versus the strongest candidate pool. For him, what tips the scale is the University of Nebraska’s status in the Big 10 Conference and its ability to stay competitive in that group.

“So it just seems to me in the quality of schools in the Big 10, if we want the kind of applicants that we would hope that other Big 10 schools would have… there is a concern among those kind of applicants for not having their names published,” Hadley said.

If the legislation passes, Hawks said the university will be able to contact and attract candidates who would otherwise not be willing to make their name public for fear of repercussions such as lessened credibility and effectiveness at their current job.

“It would be hard for me to be the leader of my company if my company employees believed I’d rather have a job somewhere else,” Hawks said.

Allen Beermann, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association, rejects the notion that a good applicant pool can only be obtained if candidates are promised confidentiality. Ten years ago, Milliken was hired in a public search, where students, faculty, the community and media had the chance to meet and greet candidates, ask questions and participate in open forums, Beermann said.

“Lots of great universities who do it publicly have lots of great leaders, and our last president was one of those people,” he said.

John Bender, a University of Nebraska journalism professor whose research includes mass media law, said if someone is a final candidate and hasn’t told his or her current employer, they’re “doing something wrong.” He also said he doesn’t see how not getting the position would be embarrassing. Being a finalist is itself “recognition of your quality,” he said.

“Even if you’re not picked for the job, it’s saying you’re one of the top people that we could find, and that’s pretty flattering,” Bender said.

Hawks also expressed concern that in a public search, other schools would be able to see candidates they may not have otherwise considered and there’s a risk that the best candidate could be “poached from us.”

The Daily Nebraskan published a staff editorial Jan. 28 urging students, staff, faculty, senators and citizens to speak out against the bill. Editor-in-chief Hailey Konnath said the six editorial members present that night agreed that while closed searches “probably offer an effective way of hiring,” full disclosure is crucial.

“This is a really important, high-profile position whose salary is paid by the public,” Konnath said. “And we all thought that those people who are paying the salary and whose children are going to be going through the university system and who are going to be living in the state and affected by the workforce it produces, those people have the right to know the candidates before they’re selected as the finalist.”

Hawks, who wrote a letter to the editor disagreeing with the editorial, said that a closed search is in the public’s best interest.

“I believe that if we are allowed to conduct our search where we can go out and secure candidates privately, we’ll be able to reach a better decision than we will under the existing law,” Hawks said. “And therefore it is in the best interest of the state.”

Beermann, however, said the public’s best interest is in the ability and opportunity to have an interest, and that means being informed. A better candidate, he said, is possible only with the involvement of more people. The university is for the benefit of students, faculty and citizens, Beermann said.

“And if you cut out all three of those, how are we ever to know that we got the best candidate, except hoping you did?” Beermann asked.

By Lydia Coutré, SPLC staff writer. Contact Coutré by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.