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Vilsack: 'Take step back' on UI search

Rod Boshart and Diane Heldt

The Gazette
November 21, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

  Gov. Tom Vilsack is asking everyone involved in the controversy surrounding the process of selecting a new president of the University of Iowa to ‘‘take a step back’’ and refocus on the goal of finding the best candidate for the job. ‘‘I think we need to take a breather, take a step back, sort of evaluate the process and figure out where we go from here, so that we make sure that whatever the process is, it is a process that insures that the very best person is selected,’’ the governor said Monday.

  Vilsack was responding to concerns raised by last week’s abrupt and secretive action by the state Board of Regents to call off the search for a new UI president in a process that some contend violated the spirit of the state’s open-meetings law.

  The regents decided, on a 6-2 vote Friday, to reject the four candidates recommended to the board, scrap the search committee and launch a new search.

  The board met several times in the past week in closed sessions that were not posted publicly. The meetings were continuations o f a closed session convened Nov. 9 that was not adjourned until Friday, a move approved by the board’s attorney.

  The action is probably not a clear violation of the law, but it does raise concern, said Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. The group may pursue amending state law to bring more openness to  hiring procedures by governmental bodies, she said.

  The Iowa Attorney General’s Office did not provide advice on the matter to the regents, Chief of Staff Eric Tabor said. It’s unclear if holding several closed sessions under the umbrella of one is allowed, but he’s not sure if his office will pursue the issue.

  One legislative leader intends to make the entire process a topic of discussion for the Oversight Committee.

  ‘‘I’m wondering what the hell is going on,’’ Senate GOP Leader Mary Lundby of Marion said Monday. Several regents assured legislators throughout the process that the secrecy was necessary and that things were going well.

  ‘‘We were told we don’t have to worry about it, and then boom, all of the sudden it blows up,’’ Lundby said.

  The terms of three regents expire this spring, and it would be a good time for Gov.-elect Chet Culver to re-examine all of the board appointees, which are made by the governor and approved by the Senate, Lundby said.

  Culver on Monday said he is still in the transition process and has not focused on specific appointments yet.

  ‘‘I’m looking forward to putting together the best possible team that we can assemble, and that may or may not involve changes at the Board of Regents,’’ he said.

  Asked if he had concerns about last week’s development, Culver said, ‘‘I am hoping to get access to all of the information available related to both the search and the open-records situation.’’

  Vilsack, who did not seek re-election to a third term, said he has no further appointment authority, with those now up to Culver.

  Soon-to-be House Speaker Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque, said a high level of confidentiality is needed in such hiring processes. The state’s elected officials have entrusted the regents with making these decisions, he said, calling the current board very strong.

  ‘‘They want to make sure they have a well-qualified person up to the job,’’ Murphy said. ‘‘Sometimes decisions are made, and we have to assume they were done in the best interests of the school and of the state.’’

  The board’s decision angered many on the UI campus. Faculty Senate President Shelly Kurtz is moving ahead with resolutions calling for a vote of no- confidence in the board leadership and for the regents to revert to a traditional,  campus-led presidential search.

  ‘‘ I wouldn’t say that we’ve calmed down any,’’ he said.