Our Views: Keep process open for choosing UW System leaders

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, says he would consider changing state law so finalists for UW System president and chancellor positions no longer would have to be revealed.

That would be a slap at Wisconsin’s proud history of open government.

A committee of the UW Board of Regents has been poring over candidates for system president, and the five finalists will be named Thursday. Committee member Margaret Farrow contacted Vos and said some promising candidates chose not to apply because of the open search process.

“I’m a big believer in transparency,” Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I want to have as transparent a process as possible. But I don’t want the process to result in candidates who are second- or third-tier—and we all know who they are—as opposed to getting top-tier candidates.”

Vos admitted, however, that he didn’t know whether only second- or third-tier candidates had applied for the job.

It’s funny how this plays out. Kevin Reilly is stepping down as president Tuesday to take a job with the American Council on Education and return to teaching. This intelligent man served admirably for most of nine years until he was embroiled in controversy this year after an audit revealed that the UW System had stashed hundreds of millions of dollars in reserve accounts. Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, went so far as to suggest “incompetence” and “arrogance” and called for Reilly to resign.

Now we’re going to change a state law so regents can choose chancellors and system presidents in secrecy? Doing so would send a bad message about transparency to those hired.

Maybe Farrow spent too much time in those despicable closed caucus meetings during her stints in the Legislature to remember that Wisconsin has some of the strongest open government laws in the country.

We agree with Bill Lueders, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council president.

“The proposal to make this a secretive process is an insult to the state,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “There is a very good reason that state law requires the finalists for important posts to be named: to protect against abuse in the process.

“The regents should not be allowed to shield from the public the identities of perhaps superior candidates whom they decide not to pick. And the public should have an opportunity to bring to attention possibly critical information about the various finalists’ assets and liabilities.”

After finalists are revealed, the regents will schedule a video conference for UW stakeholders to hear from the finalists and quiz them. Anyone interested need only go to a UW campus to take part in the live-streamed conference.

The Milwaukee paper cited a report from the Chronicle of Higher Education that says some governing boards at public colleges and universities across the country are seeking confidentiality because open searches deter quality candidates.

The Chronicle, however, says faculty and students oppose a closed process because openness inspires confidence in choices of leaders. Wisconsin residents in general should oppose it for the same reason.

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