University of Wisconsin system now has fewer disclosure requirements for applicants to top leadership positions

WISCONSIN — The University of Wisconsin system will no longer have to reveal final candidates for its top positions, now that an exemption has been signed into law.

The provision passed as part of the 2015-17 biennial budget, which was signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker on July 12.

The new change requires the system to release only the names of “seriously considered” applicants, or those who have been submitted for final consideration to an authority, for the positions of UW-system president, vice presidents and senior vice president, and the chancellor and vice chancellor of each UW institution.

The law exempts the UW-system from the normal requirement in Wisconsin law that an agency release the names of five finalists for top executive positions. Other public agencies must release the names of the five most qualified applicants if at least five people apply, and each of the applicants when fewer than five people apply.

Applicants for all other university positions now need not be disclosed at all. For example, if the UW system hires a new football or basketball coach, or head of the UW press — all well-compensated positions — it will not be required to disclose names of other candidates, or even finalists, for the position.

In theory, a university could submit only one name as a “finalist” and still be within the bounds of the law, Tara Golshan, a reporter for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, told the SPLC before the provision had passed. It has become relatively common for public universities around the country to release only a “presidential finalist list of one” to the public to avoid disclosing the names of rejected applicants, but until now, Wisconsin had a more transparent system.

Multiple state newspapers —the Wisconsin State Journal, the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Kenosha News, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — wrote editorial pieces opposing the change.

“It got a fair amount of attention, but apparently not enough for the governor or the legislature to take it out,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

The University of Wisconsin requested the change in the law, said Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, a Republican.

The university found that the five-person disclosure requirement created a “chilling effect,” discouraging highly sought-after individuals from applying, she said

“They indicated that there have been times when they felt that they’ve missed out on opportunities,” she said.

The UW system supports the changes, said James Villa, university system spokesman, in an emailed statement.

“We believe candidates who are given serious consideration for positions such as chancellor, president, or vice president of the system should expect to have their candidacy known, and these changes preserve this requirement,” he said.

Lueders said he doubts that applicants for UW-system positions suffered serious consequences, such as firing, from their employers who found out they were seeking other work.

“I mean really, is that what people do, or do they say, ‘maybe we need to do more to make this guy happy, because he’s looking for other work?’” he said. “I just don’t buy the argument that the repercussions to a job applicant are great enough to justify hiring processes in secret.”

Secretive hiring processes for universities’ top leaders have been cropping up across the country. Sack Secrecy, a special project of the Student Press Law Center, details presidential searches conducted out of the public eye at colleges around the country.

Contact staff writer Trisha LeBoeuf by email or at 202-974-6318.