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Secrecy in college president searches?

House committee endorses bill after UW lawsuit decision

A bill that would allow searches for University of Wyoming and state community college presidents to be closed to the public was endorsed by a legislative committee Monday.

House Bill 223 was introduced on Wednesday — the same day Albany County District Judge Jeffrey Donnell ordered UW trustees to release the names, current employers and dates when each finalist for UW president is scheduled to visit the university. A list of the five or more finalists to replace retiring UW President Tom Buchanan is due to trustees on or after Feb. 5.

The UW board refused in November to release the names of the finalists, prompting the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming Tribune Eagle and The Associated Press to sue to have the names released.

The bill is an attempt to keep those names secret.

“That bill would be effective on the date that it’s passed and signed by the governor. Hopefully we can head this off,” said Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie and House majority floor leader.

Meanwhile, in this corner of the state, Northwest College is in the middle of hosting public receptions and presentations for its three finalists, one of whom will replace NWC President Paul Prestwich. NWC trustees released the names of its finalists when they were chosen in December.

The House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee voted 9-0 Monday to send the bill to the House floor for debate. The panel heard more than an hour of testimony on the measure.

HB 223 now heads to the House floor, where it must pass three readings before going to the Senate.

Proponents of the bill argue the university could attract more quality candidates than if the search were done in the open. Opponents contend an open process when considering finalists can be helpful in making the right choice.

“There are times when people would want to apply, but would be afraid that their current employer would react badly to the news,” said Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, in an email. “Then if they don’t get the job, they may jeopardize their present job, or worry about future opportunities at their present job.”

However, Harvey, who is listed as a sponsor of the bill, said she has attended receptions for NWC presidential finalists in the past.

“I was invited to attend again this year, but I won’t be back from the Legislature,” she said.

Harvey said the public should get a chance to learn about and meet the people who might be leading the university and the state’s community colleges “when it gets down to the final number of candidates the board decides ...

“I don’t think the public (needs) to know everyone that applies, but I don’t think that NWC or UW has anything to lose by allowing meet ’n’ greets with the finalists,” she said.

Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, also is listed as a sponsor. He didn’t respond to requests for his views on the bill by press time Monday.

NWC Board President Mark Westerhold of Cody said he can see both sides.

“As far as Northwest College goes, we’ve taken the attitude, we want to be as transparent and inclusive as possible in the selection of a president. Therefore, we’ve had the finalists’ names public. We give people an opportunity to meet them and ask for their feedback.

“In our situation, that’s good; we get a sense of how they would get along on campus.

“For other colleges and the university, they may have their own thoughts about how they do that. The university is so much larger, it’s kind of a different animal. ... I don’t know what their philosophy is on shared governance.

“I personally think it’s good to have the names of finalists available so people can see what’s going on. It’s their tax money at work; it should be available. It’s also a personnel matter, and it’s up to the board of trustees to decide who to hire.”

Trustee Carolyn Danko of Powell also said she could see both sides.

“I see why some presidents don’t want someone to know they’re looking,” she said. “It may affect their job. (But) being a curious person, I would like to know. Things are just not as private these days as they used to be. Anybody can Google anybody.

“By the time you’re down to the final three, they’re coming to your campus, and it’s not a secret anymore. I would say, by the time you get down to the finalists, I think it’s public knowledge. And the smaller the town is, the more public it is.”

Jim Vogt, who formerly served as NWC board president and was elected in November to return to the board, said on Sunday he hoped the bill would die in committee.

“I would doubt any of the community colleges would use the basic premise of secrecy in our presidential searches, as we all operate as open as possible and as transparent as we can,” he said in an email. “We want the college community and the public to know the qualifications of our finalists and provide an open public forum for all to attend and provide the (board of trustees) with valuable feedback.

“All of our candidates are told when they apply that no personal information will become public until we have reached a finite number of candidates,” Vogt continued. “It sounds like the university used the same procedures for past presidential searches and are trying to change their process this time around.”

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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