Executive searches in Nebraska will remain open after legislative proposal fails

NEBRASKA — Legislators won’t support a bill that would allow the University of Nebraska to keep candidates for top positions confidential except a single finalist.

The Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee voted 5-2 to not advance the bill. Bill sponsor State Sen. Galen Hadley said there will be no amendments to the legislation.

LB1018 did not make it out of committee, and it has not been prioritized, so it is basically finished for the year,” Hadley said.

This comes as good news to Allen Beermann, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association.

“No one ever loses with transparency,” Beermann said. “Democracy has flourished because of it. (It’s) not always easy, many times uncomfortable, but after all, the public — it’s their government, it’s their university.”

As the law stands now, candidates may be kept private until the search for a president is narrowed to a pool of at least four applicants, all of whom must be disclosed. The bill would have allowed search committees to keep confidential presidential, vice presidential and chancellor candidates until they’ve narrowed the pool to one finalist.

Proponents of the bill say a closed search would allow for a better pool of applicants, including those who may otherwise be hesitant to apply and jeopardize their current position by publicly seeking another one. Opponents say the current law allows for students, faculty, the general public and the media to meet, investigate and learn about the candidates.

Hadley introduced the bill on behalf of the University of Nebraska’s Board of Regents after President James Milliken announced last month that he would be leaving Nebraska to become chancellor of the City University of New York.

Howard Hawks, chairman of the board, said the lack of legislative support for the bill was “unfortunate and disappointing,” because it will limit potential candidates. Hawks said he has three contacts who won’t participate in an open search.

“Notwithstanding that, we still have an opportunity to find the right person,” Hawks said. “I think we’ll have to dig harder. We are less likely or almost unlikely to be able to get a sitting president or chancellor, so we have to find a rising star, so to speak.”

State Sen. Bill Avery, chairman of the Government, Military and Veteran Affairs Committee, said Nebraska has a “deep and longstanding tradition of transparency in government,” because without it, there’s no accountability. The committee saw no reason to change the law, he said.

“After all, the university is a public institution and it gets a significant amount of public money and it will be paying the new president a substantial salary and that will be largely state tax money,” Avery said.

Avery said the bill would go in “exactly the wrong direction,” and that if there needs to be a change, it should be one toward more transparency in hiring public positions.

Hawks said the school wants “full transparency,” when it comes to the final candidate, but “not the kind of transparency that inhibits people from applying or jeopardizes the position where they are,” Hawks said. “That is the balance that has to be struck.”

The university, Nebraska media and other open-government advocates considered this issue in 2007, and came to the current compromise that requires the disclosure of four candidates. Avery said since this presidential search will be the first since 2007, they haven’t tested this law sufficiently to start changing it yet.

Board of Regents Vice Chairman Bob Phares disagreed, saying they’ve had experience with the process. The compromise’s process of disclosing four candidates also applies to chancellor searches, which have occurred since then.

Hawks suspects there was a fear that the board could announce the presidential candidate one day and appoint him or her the next — this wasn’t the intention, he said. After Hadley’s bill was defeated in committee, the regents proposed an amendment that would have allowed the public at least seven days to vet the candidate before the board officially voted. When committee members discussed the issue, Hawks said it didn’t gain enough support.

“I think for this year there’s not much hope,” Hawks said. “As long as I have a role, I will plan to take it up every year.”

Beermann said that the conversations and arguments were civil and there was “useful debate.”

“This way, when you get the four finalists, if they all come in and they visit, students can ask questions, the faculty can ask questions, the public, senators, news media can interview the candidates, find out who they are, what they are, why they are, where they come from, what’s their philosophy, what can you bring to Nebraska — all of these things. It’s a marvelous experience.”

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