A Nebraska bill would allow universities to conduct more secretive presidential searches

NEBRASKA — When public universities in Nebraska conduct searches for their top leaders, the four top candidates have to be identified to the public. But a bill introduced in the state legislature would instead allow universities to only name a single candidate.

Legislative Bill 1109 would allow the University of Nebraska system to name one priority candidate for public vetting when deciding top university positions, including chancellor positions and the systemwide president. The university president is named by the university’s Board of Regents and serves as CEO of the university system while chancellors are named by the president and oversee operations at specific universities.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. John Murante earlier this year, would mark a change in the current state law, which requires the identification of four candidates.

At a hearing on the bill Wednesday, University of Nebraska representatives spoke in support of the bill, arguing a new process would attract a wide net of potential candidates and make the university competitive against peer institutions in states — like Ohio, Illinois and Indiana — that have similar one-candidate approaches.

In opposition, representatives of Nebraska media outlets argued the bill would rob the public’s ability to compare candidates and that the current law does not prevent the most qualified candidates from applying.

Members of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, who heard the testimony, have not taken any action yet on the bill.

The bill would require the university system to announce the name of a sole candidate at least 30 days before a public board meeting where board members would conduct a final vote on the candidate. Before the vote took place, students, faculty and staff would be able to meet the candidate, ask questions and provide input at public forums, which would be held at each University of Nebraska campus for a presidential candidate and respective campuses for a chancellor candidate.

Melissa Lee, spokeswoman for the University of Nebraska, said if the candidate is deemed not suitable after the 30-day public vetting period, the university would have the opportunity to present a different candidate to the public.

Identified in the bill as an “enhanced public scrutiny process,” the public vetting process for top university positions would be mandated, Murante said, something not required under the current law. He said he thinks his bill would strike a good balance between a transparent process and attracting the best talent to Nebraska.

Critics of open searches have said that releasing candidates’ names to the public can deter quality people from wanting to apply if they know their current employer will see that they are looking for another job. Murante said the number of applicants in the current search for a new chancellor for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has been concerningly low, and he thinks it is because of the four-candidate announcement.

Still, Mike Reilly, executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald and president of Media of Nebraska, testified that the current hiring system works, pointing out that the Board of Regents was thrilled to hire University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds, who took office in 2015.

The other three named candidates who did not get the job said in interviews with the Omaha World-Herald that going public did not hurt their careers, Reilly said, adding that one candidate even received a retention bonus along with a 16 percent raise.

Describing the bill as a “step backward” for the legislature, Reilly questioned in his testimony whether the university should want a candidate who is afraid of an open hiring process.

“Democracy is not the most convenient way to conduct business, but the desire for convenience should not trump the vital role the public has in vetting candidates for important positions,” he said.

In an editorial published Monday, Ariel Roblin, president and general manager at KETV in Omaha, said the public should have ability to vet multiple top candidates for some of the highest paid positions in the state.

“Open government laws are meant for the people, not the media,” Roblin said. “The public needs and wants information that we bring to them. But we can’t do that if the government withholds it.”

University President Bounds testified that in the current search for the new chancellor for UNL, the candidate pool is a fraction of the size as a direct result of the current requirement to name four candidates. The bill would not have any impact on that search, according to a statement from the university.

Bounds said a search he conducted for a small regional college in Mississippi garnered an applicant pool three times larger than his search for a chancellor of UNL — a Big Ten university with more than 25,000 students in 2014. He said the bill would create a process that does not discourage the best candidates from applying.

Terry Kroeger, president of Berkshire Hathaway Media Group and publisher of the Omaha World-Herald, testified at the hearing that the bill would rob the public of the right to compare candidates and would set a “serious and alarming” precedent. He said that precedent could become a slippery slope that might lead city councils, school boards and other public boards to follow a similar process.

“This 30-day vetting period of one candidate, short of a truly scandalous finding, is really window dressing for a decision that is in reality already final,” Kroeger said.

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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