Search committees should keep public involved in the process

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The public's business must be done in public.

That's especially true when it comes to selecting leadership for major institutions like the University of Nebraska.

However, a hearing on LB1109 Wednesday will help decide whether our state actually believes in open government.

LB1109 would allow the search for a future president of the University of Nebraska to be conducted in secret, with only the final candidate disclosed before finally being selected.

Regent Howard Hawks would like that to be the way it is done, because the current law discourages potential candidates from applying.

The issue goes back at least to 2004, when an NU search committee tried to maintain candidates' confidentiality by interviewing several of them in Kansas City, a move that broke state law and resulted in a final compromise revealing the four final candidates.

The bill would require NU to release the final name, after which they would be subject to a 30-day public vetting period, attending public forums for students, faculty and staff, and meet with the media and other stakeholders.

Hawks and other supporters of LB1109 have too much confidence in official search committee activities, and too little in the ability of the public to help at an earlier stage in such a search.

The bill has gained momentum because of Gov. Pete Ricketts' penchant to running government more like a business, but there are important difference.

Over the years, at lower levels, we've seen public officials placed into positions where they didn't belong, often when a longer public vetting could have prevented a bad hire.

The leader of a major public institution is in a much different position than a lower-level employee of a private business who fears being fired if he is honest about being in the market for a new position.

Members of search committees should ask themselves: Do they really want to hire someone who is less than open with their current employers about their intentions?

Major tax-supported institutions owe the taxpayers who fund them a broader role in determining who will lead them.

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