Universities’ closed-door selection process sparks Senate oversight proposal

According to documents, UW had already prepared a two-page press release announcing its selection as president prior to its vote

OLYMPIA — Applicants for top leadership positions at universities may have to answer to your state senator rather than a board of regents or trustees if a 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 a closed session, 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.

Trustees and regents have further noted in past challenges to their selection process that obtaining the best candidates depends on the secrecy of that process.

Opponents have argued unsuccessfully that the selection process must have transparency, at least in the review of finalists for the presidential posts. The universities’ boards counter that the one finalist is their preferred candidate. So far, there have been no successful court challenges applying the Open Public Meetings Act to the selection proceedings.

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

SB 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 Feb. 16 with three votes in favor, one opposed, and one to move the bill forward without recommendation.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, believes that modeling presidential searches after confirmation hearings would not only result in selecting better candidates, but would no longer require universities to confront issues of public transparency surrounding such selection processes.

“I think that would be good to get the best qualified candidates and stop having our regents breaking the spirit, if not the letter, of the (Open Public Meetings) law,” Baumgartner said. “When law needs to be changed, the public’s interest can be protected by treating them like department heads. They already are in many respects.”

Baumgartner expressed no concern that having senators confirm college presidents would introduce political bias into the selection process.

“Well, considering that the Senate confirms nearly 99.9 percent of department heads, I don’t think partisanship has or ever will be a concern for confirmation hearings,” Baumgartner said.

Paul Francis, executive director of the Council of Presidents, believes that the current process of selecting college presidents is a healthy, non-partisan process. College boards, Francis said, already work closely enough with the Legislature that turning over the confirmation process to it would be detrimental.

“We really are trying to make sure it doesn’t become a political appointment and we want to make sure that we provide a voice of our community members, and the history of that institution,” Francis said. “The current process isn’t political. We don’t believe that appointments should be based on what party controls the Senate.”

Western Washington University and the University of Washington have both been criticized for their presidential selection process in recent years.

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

The UW Board of Regents recently produced a large number of records in response to a WCOG discovery request. A hearing on motions for summary judgment is scheduled for April 21 in King County Superior Court, according to WCOG attorney Katherine A. George of Johnston George LLP.

According to documents obtained by WCOG through a public information request, the university had already prepared a two-page press release announcing Cauce’s selection as president — in addition to a script detailing the announcement — prior to the October vote. The names of other 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,” said WCOG President Toby Nixon, a Kirkland City Council member. “It was a complete sham.”

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

“While we believe that it would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do, it would completely validate secret process and we don’t believe that government should work that way,” Nixon said. “We believe that government should be accountable to the people. We regard Ana Mari Cauce as a fine individual, but what we cannot respect is the process by which she was elected.”

Western Washington University selected its current president, Sabah Randhawa, last year through a presidential search advisory committee appointed by the school’s board of trustees based on recommendations by students, staff, and faculty. The committee reviewed applications, interviewed finalists, and hosted a campus tour for preferred candidates before holding a final vote.

In 2014, Eastern Washington University’s board of trustees nominated a presidential search advisory committee, which selected three publicly announced finalists. These candidates were interviewed on the school’s Cheney and Spokane campuses where they also engaged with students, faculty, staff and community members. Mary Cullinan was the final choice.

Two-year colleges select candidates through a public process that includes meeting with stakeholders such as students and faculty on campus, holding open forums, community tours, and formal interviews with trustees.

South Puget Sound Community College — one of 34 community and technical colleges in the state — selected its current president, Timothy Stokes, through a similar year-long process in 2013. The college’s trustees selected an outside consulting firm, National Search and Education Consulting (NSEC), to manage the search.

After NSEC compiled applications, a presidential advisory committee reviewed the applications and narrowed the pool to the top five applicants. The trustees then made the final decision and job offer.

(This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Contact reporter Tim Gruver at timgruver92@gmail.com.)