Can an “Open Meeting” Be Held in Secret?

BY HANK REICHMAN

Last Fall the AAUP issued a “Statement on Presidential Searches” decrying the growing practice “by governing boards to conduct searches for new presidents or chancellors in secret, abandoning the previously standard practice of inviting a select group of finalists to visit the campus and meet publicly with faculty and other members of the campus community.”  The statement noted that “decisions to forgo public campus visits and public forums by finalists violate longstanding principles of shared governance.”  And it called on “colleges and universities to resist calls for closed, secretive searches and reaffirm their commitment to transparency and active faculty engagement in the hiring of higher administrative officers.”

This blog has documented more than a few cases where secret searches were imposed, often with almost immediate deleterious consequences for faculty and the institution.  But the latest incident is without doubt the most bizarre.  For what happens when a board decides to guarantee the secrecy of all applicants when state law mandates that the board discuss the appointment in an open, public meeting?  Well, here’s what the Seattle Times reports took place when the board of Western Washington University found itself in that very situation:

When Washington State University’s Board of Regents voted to make Kirk Schulz the next president of the university on Friday [March 25], they chose an unusual procedure in which they discussed three candidates by letter, not by name.

After a brief discussion of “candidates A, B and C,” the regents voted unanimously for candidate C. Later, after a closed session that involved a negotiation on the phone with candidate C, they announced that he had accepted the job — and his name was Kirk Schulz.

That method may violate the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, said Brian Sonntag, former state auditor and an expert on that law.

“The right way to do it is, well, just the opposite of what they did,” Sonntag said. “It’s a public decision, a public body, and people have a right to know what this public body is doing.”

Labeling the candidates by letters is like talking in code, Sonntag said. “If you’re having the discussion publicly, and no one knows what in the world you’re talking about, why even do that, then?” he said.

Mike Worthy, the WSU regent who led the search committee, said WSU’s attorney had approved the procedure.

He said the candidates were told at the outset that their names wouldn’t be revealed publicly unless they accepted the job. Promising confidentiality meant WSU could attract candidates who did not want it known that they were job-shopping, Worthy said.

The report also noted that

Last year, University of Washington regents chose interim president Ana Marie Cauce to be the school’s permanent president after a secret search, and without naming other finalists.

A Seattle Times investigation showed that the regents and other key officials communicated as if they knew Cauce would be named UW president days before the board publicly voted to appoint her.  The records obtained by The Times bolstered suspicions by open-government advocates that the regents had violated the state’s open-meetings law.

Ya think?

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