University of Washington sued over secretive selection of new president

WASHINGTON — The Washington Coalition for Open Government is taking the University of Washington to task, legally, for the circumstances surrounding their most recent presidential search.

In October 2015, the University of Washington’s presidential search committee voted to appoint Ana Mari Cauce president of the university. Cauce is a widely respected and popular professor and administrator who worked at the university for 29 years and had served as the interim president for seven months before being selected.

The issue, as presented by The Seattle Times, is that none of the competing candidates were ever presented to the public, and the final decision appears to have been made before the legally required public vote. As such, the new president’s selection may violate the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Although the final vote was nominally taken during a public meeting, the Times presented numerous documents, including a two-page press release announcing Cauce as the new president and a script detailing the vote and subsequent announcement, that were prepared prior to the meeting.

In one article, the state’s Open Government Ombudsman, Nancy Krier, pointed out that it’s not unheard of for government agencies to draft a press release in anticipation of the possibility a decision is reached. This doesn’t address the fact that the release contains quotes by Cauce expressing gratitude for her selection.

While her statement includes broad platitudes that could be made by any university faculty or administrator proud of the university, she expressly says – before the vote -– “I am grateful to the board and to the search committee for the confidence they are placing in me to lead this amazing university.”

The Times obtained a highly choreographed script, now cited in the lawsuit, that the chair of the Board of Regents, Bill Ayer, followed to conduct the meeting, which includes marks for which board member (Kristianne Blake) would put forth the motion to select Cauce, which board member (JoAnne Harrell) would second it, and the phrase “The motion carries!!” followed by a note of “Applause! Applause!” and the line “Ana Mari, would you like to make a few remarks?”

In light of these irregularities, the Washington Coalition for Open Government filed a lawsuit against the University of Washington on August 9, which the Times noted comes 45 years to the day since the OPMA was passed.

By law, a governing body has the option to hold “executive sessions” in private for a finite list of reasons, one of which is to “evaluate the qualifications of a candidate for appointment to elective office.”

The statute goes on to clarify: “However, any interview of such candidate and final action appointing a candidate to elective office shall be in a meeting open to the public(.)”

The same section that specifies under what circumstances executive sessions may be held requires that the governing body publicly announce the holding of an executive session beforehand and state the reason for the public’s exclusion.

The lawsuit is informed heavily by thorough reporting and extensive public records requests conducted by the Times. Those public records reveal that, in addition to all the other evidence, one of the head-hunters hired by the university to seek out a president was discussing compensation with Cauce before the purported public vote.

More specifically, John Thornburg with Witt/Keifer Executive Search wrote in an email, “…her impression was that the Regents were targeting next Tuesday to announce her appointment.”

Katherine George, an attorney with Harrison, Benis, & Spence, serves on the WCOG’s board of directors and filed the lawsuit.

“The University of Washington is one of the wealthiest public universities in the country,” George said. “It has a huge influence on the economy of our state and obviously it’s the flagship educational institution in the state. So, it’s tremendously important for the public to be able to understand how and why decisions are made.”

George adds that there’s more to this lawsuit than holding the university accountable for this one suspected breach of open government laws.

Just this year, the state legislature increased the penalty for violating the act from $100 to $500, but no court opinion has ever been published of such a fine being levied against a government body in the state.

This, despite the fact that the Times successfully sued the university over a similarly secretive presidential search in 1995 and that the university was found to be in violation of the OPMA on 24 distinct occasions during a two-year period.

“It’s still not a huge amount, particularly for wealthy individuals and a number of the regents of the University of Washington are quite wealthy,” George said. “So, that’s one of the reasons for bringing this lawsuit is to call attention to the need for meaningful penalties.”

Regardless of whether Cauce is a good choice for president, critics note that there was no way for the university’s students, faculty, employees and the public to weigh this candidate against others on the short list and make their opinions known.

“The Washington Coalition for Open Government is not trying to unseat the president at all,” George said. “The point of the lawsuit is to challenge the process used. And the selection of a university president, by the board’s own admission, is the most important decision the board can make.”

The lawsuits asks that the court impose a fine against the search committee members as permitted under the OPMA statutes, order the university’s Board of Regents to pay WCOG legal fees, and require the regents to undergo OPMA training.

When contacted by SPLC, UW’s Associate Vice President for Media Relations and Communications Norman Arkans wrote, “…as I told The Seattle Times, we indicated earlier we believe the Regents fully complied with the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act, and we still believe that.”

In addition, Arkans cited the open letter to the Times penned by Regent Bill Ayer, who chaired the search committee, in which Ayer insisted the presidential search was conducted under the guidance of the state Attorney General’s office.

“I believe the board was fully compliant with the Open Meetings Act throughout the search process,” Ayer’s letter reads, “and on Oct. 13 made what we all consider to be a wise and excellent decision.”

At the end of the day, regardless of the relative wisdom of the search committee’s ultimate choice on this one search, George maintains it’s crucial to involve the public, and especially the university community in a decision with so much impact on the state.

“There was no discussion of any alternatives at the meeting at which the public vote occurred. There was no discussion of alternatives,” said George.

“It was literally scripted.”

SPLC Publications Fellow Roxann Elliott can be reached by email or (202) 833-4614.

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