LSU wins partial court victory in closed-door presidential search

Louisiana State University won’t have to pay contempt fines for defying a judge’s order to disclose the names of applicants in a secretive 2013 presidential search, under a state appeals court’s ruling.

And instead of revealing the 35 semifinalists who received serious consideration for the presidency, LSU will have to identify only four people (including the winning candidate, F. King Alexander), who actually got as far as an interview.

The Louisiana Court of Appeal’s Dec. 30 ruling is a holiday gift to the trustees of LSU, who were facing a $500-a-day fine for every day they refused to disclose the information requested by the student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, and two professional papers.

Instead, the court decided Tuesday in a 3-0 ruling, LSU will have to pay only $30,800 in attorney fees to the publishers of two newspapers, The Advocate and The Times-Picayune, who challenged the closed-door search under Louisiana’s Public Records Act.

A 2006 Louisiana statute explicitly entitles the public to the names and backgrounds of “applicants” for executive positions such as college presidencies. The issue in the case, Capital City Press v. Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors, is when a potential candidate crosses the line from “just browsing” to “applying.”

Like many across the country, LSU’s presidential search was conducted largely by a private contractor, R. William Funk & Associates, that maintains a stable of would-be presidents who’ve agreed to have their resumes kept on file for consideration in future searches. From that stockpile, LSU’s trustees focused in on 35 “wish list” names and eventually contacted five about being interviewed. One took another position and another withdrew before being interviewed, leaving three who went through with the entire process.

The appeals court concluded that “applicant” means “an individual who has expressed his or her desire through words or actions to be considered for the position in question.” In the case of LSU’s presidency, that means not just asking for information about the position but affirmatively expressing willingness to be considered — which, the court held, only four candidates did: the three who interviewed and the one who withdrew. The public is entitled to their names.

In a separate ruling, the court also threw out contempt fines against LSU, finding that the university did not act unreasonably in refusing to comply with District Judge Janice Clark’s April 2013 disclosure order.

Tuesday’s decision largely reverses a pro-transparency decision by Clark, who slapped LSU with contempt-of-court fines — which ultimately totaled more than $46,000 — after the university defied her order to surrender the resumes of the 35 candidates the trustees seriously discussed.

Lawyers for both LSU and the newspapers told The Advocate that an appeal is possible, since neither side won a complete victory. To appeal, either side would have to file a petition with the Louisiana Supreme Court within 30 days of the time the notice of the appeals court’s decision was mailed.