Picking university leaders behind closed doors

By all accounts three of the state’s top universities have landed well-qualified and proven leaders in higher education as their new presidents.

But it’s a worrisome trend that all three — starting with Ana Mari Cauce in the fall at University of Washington, then last month Kirk Schulz at Washington State University and Sabah Randhawa at Western Washington University in Bellingham — were selected as the regents’ or trustees’ final choice at each school without announcing the names or allowing the public to meet with other candidates for the positions during the search.

The selection of Cauce in October even raised suspicions that UW’s regents had settled on Cauce privately in advance of an official meeting to make and announce their selection, which would be a violation of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

At the time, Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, told the Seattle Times, “it’s absolutely clear that the decision was already made before the meeting.”

The meetings act, for which the Legislature this session increased the fines for knowing violations, requires that governing boards for public agencies, such as universities, deliberate and vote in public session.

Similar concerns were raised regarding the process used to select Schulz. Washington State University said it had a pool of eight finalists for president as it sought a successor to the late Elson Floyd. From the start, WSU’s regents had determined that they would withhold the identities of those candidates. When its regents deliberated and voted in open session, candidates were identified only by letters.

Former state auditor and open government expert Brian Sonntag said such use of “code” during a public meeting only served to keep the public in the dark.

According to WSU’s student newspaper, The Daily Evergreen, one instructor at the university’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, compared the process to waiting for a white puff of smoke from a Sistine Chapel flue when a new pope is selected.

Western’s selection process, according to the presidential search updates on its website, held open the possibility that more than one candidate would be brought to the Bellingham campus to meet with students and faculty.

But Western trustees instead selected Randhawa in late March and scheduled his visit this week.

Nora Selander, a Western junior studying political sciences and history, criticized the process, telling the Bellingham Herald: “I don’t know if it’s been as open as they say it has been. I would’ve really enjoyed seeing a panel of candidates here today.”

In each case, the universities’ trustees and regents have justified the closed-door process as necessary to ensure an ample pool of qualified candidates. Releasing names of candidates, the reasoning goes, could discourage applicants who wouldn’t want current employers to know they were seeking positions elsewhere.

Certainly, it could discourage some candidates. But that concern has to be weighed against the public’s right to a selection process that is open and transparent and allows insight into the qualities and talents candidates have and what trustees and regents value in a leader.

This is in the interest of the public, of course, but it’s also in the interest of the universities, their trustees and the prospective leaders. An open and transparent process, one that requires candidates to stand before the public that pays the salary for the position they seek, provides greater confidence in the person who is selected.

We expect our leaders to be able to withstand public scrutiny. That scrutiny rightly begins when he or she applies for the job.

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