Bill seeks transparency in university hiring

Presidential selections drawing fire

— Applicants for universities’ top leadership positions may have to answer to your state senator rather than a board of regents or trustees if a new Senate proposal successfully brings those appointments from college campuses to the capitol.

Historically, university trustees and regents select presidents from a pool of candidates in secrecy, voting publicly only for the final preferred candidate. The rationale for this process has been to protect the ability of candidates not selected to seek other presidential positions without having their “rejection” on record.

Opponents have argued unsuccessfully that the selection process must have transparency at least in the review of finalists for the presidential posts.

Under current law, the governor with Senate confirmation appoints university trustees and regents. These appointees now select their universities’ presidents.

Senate Bill 5584 would require university presidential candidates to be confirmed by the state senate in the manner that department heads are appointed by legislators.

The bill narrowly passed the Senate Committee on Higher Education, with three votes in favor, one opposed, and one to move the bill forward without recommendation.

Western Washington University and the University of Washington have both received criticism concerning their presidential selection process in recent years.

Last August, the Washington Coalition for Open Government sued the University of Washington claiming the Board of Regents violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

The Coalition alleges that the university voted on its current president, Ana Mari Cauce, behind closed doors prior to her selection by a public vote of the Board of Regents in October 2015.

According to documents obtained by the Coalition through a public information request, the university had already prepared a two-page press release announcing Cauce’s selection as president prior to the October vote, in addition to a script detailing the announcement.

The names of competing candidates were not made available to the public.

“The UW put on a show and held a public vote, but from what we’ve gathered, (the regents) had already made their decision behind closed doors,” Coalition President Toby Nixon. “It was a complete sham.”

Nixon said that while the Coalition would fully support college presidents being confirmed by the senate, the bill would still validate universities’ secretive conduct.

“While we believe it would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do, it would completely validate secret process and we don’t believe government should work that way,” Nixon said.

When Eastern Washington University elected its current president in 2014, Mary Cullinan, its board of trustees nominated a presidential search advisory committee, which selected three publicly announced finalists.

Candidates were interviewed on the school’s Cheney and Spokane campuses where they engaged with students, faculty, staff and community members.

Two-year colleges select candidates through a public process that includes meeting with students and faculty on campus.


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