Education

Colorado bill would restrict public details on college president candidates

Dive Brief:

  • Colorado’s state colleges would only need to disclose the name of a single finalist in a presidential job search under the terms of a bill moving through its legislature

  • Currently, if three or fewer candidates meet the requirements of the chief executive role at a state entity, their names and application materials are subject to public records laws. The bill would strip this part of the statute.

  • Closed presidential searches have become more common over time, but they have attracted criticism for lacking transparency.

Dive Insight:

The bill text states that publicly sharing the names of applicants who weren’t selected has “had a chilling effect” on local and state entities’ ability to attract candidates for these positions.

Proponents of presidential searches that don’t disclose applicant information justify their position with a similar argument: that contenders’ privacy and employment are jeopardized if it becomes known they’re looking for a new job.

But such claims lack evidence, according to scholars. 

Most presidential contracts have a clause that gives chief executives a big payout if they’re terminated without cause, Judith Wilde, chief operating officer of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, in Virginia, opined recently in a Florida newspaper. That state’s legislature is also considering a bill that would stop requiring public colleges to release the names of applicants to an active presidential search in records requests.

Wilde, who has studied presidential searches extensively, has never observed an employment agreement that would prohibit a president from seeking another position. Wilde also drew attention to data from the American Council on Education that shows fewer than a quarter of college chancellors or presidents held that type of position immediately before stepping into their current role. 

Still, the bill in Colorado has gained significant and bipartisan support, passing the House of Representatives this month with a vote of 50 to 13. 

Colorado law dictates public bodies need to divulge finalists’ names for executive jobs two weeks before a formal offer is made. State colleges would need to share demographic data of presidential candidates who are not named as finalists, however. 

It was once the norm for colleges to bring multiple candidates to campus and expose them to the community, Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said in an interview. It was to “everyone’s benefit,” he said, as it gave students and employees a chance to meet and judge them, as well as the candidates a chance to gauge whether the campus was a good fit.

But institutions and states have gradually shifted to secretive practices, especially as headhunting firms have gotten more involved, he said.

LoMonte said presidents who were appointed following closed searches have had scandals emerge that likely would have been aired sooner with a more open recruitment process. He cited one example: the president of Ithaca College, in New York, was revealed to have been convicted of a sexual misdemeanor in 2001. This was known to the campus until about six months into her presidency, the institution’s student newspaper reported, though the search committee was aware. 

More incidents like this are going to have to “pile up” for policymakers to notice and change course, LoMonte said. And it’s “incomprehensible” that the public doesn’t get to question candidates, he said.

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