Rider tacked onto Wisconsin state budget would limit public access to searches for top university jobs

WISCONSIN–A recent proposal in the Wisconsin legislature would exempt the University of Wisconsin System from a state disclosure law entitling the public to information about finalists for key university positions.

UW would have to release only the names of candidates for high-level positions who are “seriously considered” for appointment, certified for appointment, or submitted for final consideration for appointment.

The proposal would exempt the UW System from the law that requires all state agencies to identify all applicants for an unclassified, discretionary position if fewer than five people apply, or five finalists if at least five people apply, said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

The change originated in the Joint Finance Committee as part of Omnibus Motion 521. On May 29, the committee voted to include the motion in the state budget by a vote of 12-4, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats against, said Emily Pope, a fiscal analyst for the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

UW would have to disclose only the names of those “seriously considered” for the positions of the UW system president, the UW System vice presidents and senior vice president, and the chancellor and vice chancellor of each UW institution, according to the motion.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council sent an action alert to its members stating that it is “deeply opposed” to the change.

“What is the necessity of the additional layer of secrecy over the hiring of these public employees?” Lueders said.

UW was concerned that having to reveal the names of candidates who are not necessarily finalists under the current system is not fair to applicants or to the public, said Alex Hummel, associate vice president for communications at the UW system.

Under the current law, if three people advance as finalists for an unclassified position in the UW system, the university is obligated to release the names of two additional candidates, said Hummel. This could give the public an inaccurate impression of who is seriously being considered for a position, he said.

“The intent here is to actually improve the public understanding of who is actually considered for a position,” said Hummel.

Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), a member of the joint finance committee, said in a statement that he believes that the change will help attract high-quality applicants to the UW system.

“Highly successful and qualified individuals who currently hold a position somewhere else may be less inclined to apply if they know their name is going to be made public, even if they aren’t up for final consideration,” Schraa said. “By reforming the statute to require only the names of applicants being ‘seriously considered’ to be subject to public disclosure, it will help ensure the highest quality individuals continue to apply.”

Lueders said that some applicants like their employers to be aware of their job-seeking.

“It’s something people have managed to deal with,” he said.

Under this change, there would be no disclosure requirements for other positions such as coaching jobs, which are compensated at hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in some cases, Lueders said.

Inviting commentary and input on candidates is an important value, he said.

“This is an opportunity for…members of the public to point out problems with prospective hires before it’s too late,” Lueders said. “The public has the right to know who’s been passed up.”

Tara Golshan, a reporter for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and former student newspaper editor at UW-Madison, said that any change that affects open-records laws affects the reporting process.

“In theory, a university only has to submit one name,” she said. She contrasted this with the process of finding the current chancellor at UW-Madison in 2013, where reporters and the general public had information on several candidates.

It has become relatively common for public universities in other states, where disclosure laws are not as explicit as Wisconsin’s, to release the name of a single “finalist” on the eve of finalizing the hire, as Louisiana State University, the University of Georgia and Texas A&M University have in recent years.

Lueders said he was concerned about how legislators brought forward the proposal.

“If you want to do this, introduce this as a real bill,” he said. “Don’t just sneak it into the budget like a bunch of cowards.”

Lueders believes other agencies will attempt to receive disclosure exemptions if the change is enacted.

“I don’t think they’ve identified a need for this change, and if it does pass, it’s going to lead to other agencies requesting that the law be changed to limit their disclosure as well,” he said.

The motion is part of the state budget, which will go before the full legislature after the Joint Finance Committee approves it.