New Nebraska law allows universities to only name a single candidate for top positions

When deciding top university leaders, University of Nebraska officials will now just name a single candidate to the public, instead of four, under a new state law.

On Wednesday, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signed off on Legislative Bill 1109 to allow the University of Nebraska system to name one priority candidate for public vetting when deciding top university positions. Under the previous law, the university had to release the names of the four final candidates. The new law, touted as an “enhanced public scrutiny process,” is meant to attract a wider net of potential candidates, who may feel more comfortable with anonymity, and make the university competitive against peer institutions in states — like Ohio, Illinois and Indiana — that have similar one-candidate approaches.

The state’s unicameral legislature passed the bill this month by a 38-8 vote, despite opposition from Nebraska media outlets and open government advocates.

Mike Reilly, executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald and president of Media of Nebraska, said the bill is a “step backwards” for transparency and the public’s ability to have input on an important university decision.

“I think the public has been cut out of this process,” he said.

Reilly said there is zero evidence that the previous hiring process has caused the institution to hire substandard university leaders. In fact, he said, university officials have said that they have hired outstanding leaders with the open system.

Now with the law on the books, he said other government agencies will ask for the same secrecy in the future.

The university system is now required to identify a sole priority candidate 30 days before a public board meeting to vote on the candidate. In the 30-day period, the university will hold a public forum where students, faculty and staff are able to meet the candidate, ask questions and give input on the candidate. For chancellor candidates, there would be a public forum on the respective campus and for presidential candidates there would be one at each University of Nebraska campus. There previously was no requirement for a public vetting process.

The university’s Board of Regents selects the university president, who serves as CEO of the university system, while chancellors are named by the president and oversee operations at specific universities.

At a hearing for the bill in February, representatives from the University of Nebraska testified in support of the legislation, arguing that the change will allow the university to remain competitive and attract top talent.

University President Hank Bounds had testified that in searching for a new chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the requirement to name four candidates has led to a candidate pool that is a fraction of the size that he expected. He said top candidates are not as willing to participate in a public process for concern that it could compromise their job status and effectiveness.

But in a column in the Omaha World-Herald, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte called a publicly visible search a “valuable weed-out function.”

“Sometimes ‘more applicants’ isn’t really better,” he wrote. “If presidential searches remain open, here’s who won’t apply: (1) people so arrogant they can’t stand the thought of losing; (2) people whose backgrounds won’t hold up to public scrutiny and (3) people with contempt for open government.”

The UNL Faculty Senate opposed the bill by a 48-4 vote. In a letter to the editor sent to local news outlets, John Bender, UNL Faculty Senate president, argued that the bill would not allow university faculty, staff and students to compare and evaluate candidates. If those stakeholders have input in the hiring decision, he said, they will be better able to support that person once they assume the position.

Bender also points out that all four candidates for the open UNL chancellor position have spoken about the need for transparency within the university and the need to be open and frank with university stakeholders.

“It would be sadly ironic if the Legislature decided to eliminate the last vestige of transparency from the process of selecting university chancellors and presidents at the same time that the new chancellor of UNL was promising transparency,” Bender wrote in the letter.

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

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