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Shed secrecy in search for university president

Regents' bungling fuels public distrust.


Des Moines Register

November 21, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, 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 Des Moines Register.]

The Iowa Board of Regents has bungled the search for a new University of Iowa president, leaving observers to wonder whether the regents have a hidden agenda and whether they seriously value participation by the university community or, for that matter, the people of Iowa.

Indeed, their actions have created a climate of confusion and distrust that threatens serious harm to the university.

To begin to rebuild trust and respect with the university and the public, the board must open the process to the public. Obviously, doing it in secret did not work very well.

Last week's surprising action by the board to reject all finalists selected by an advisory committee left some committee members and even some regents surprised and angry.

From the beginning, this whole ordeal has been badly handled:

- The board insulted former President David Skorton by giving him a smaller raise for 2006 - 3 percent - than his counterparts at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, who received 5 percent. ISU President Gregory Geoffroy also was given a deferred compensation package of $60,000 a year, if he continues at ISU until January 2011. The board said it wanted to ensure Geoffroy would stay at ISU. Skorton has said the difference in raises did not play a part in his decision to leave for Cornell University. But another message could certainly be construed from the board's heavy-handed maneuver: It cared about keeping Geoffroy but not Skorton.

- The board gave a much smaller role than in the past to university staff and students in the search process.

- It has shrouded the process in secrecy, including a bizarre demand that search-committee members sign oaths that they would not share details with even their own family members. This is particularly ironic given that the board's president is Michael Gartner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor who throughout his career fought courageously for the people's right to know.

There is a reason why the Legislature enacted the open-records and open-meetings laws, and that reason would seem obvious in this situation. The people of Iowa deserve to know how top officials of public institutions are hired. What sort of people are public officials looking for? Who has applied for the job? What are the standards for picking finalists and the finalist?

None of that was clear last week, except that the board was suddenly (and apparently newly) interested in a candidate with special expertise in the health-care field. After the board's mysterious decision to pull the plug on this round of the search process, the public was left to speculate that some regents hadn't gotten their way.

The goal of public accountability that led to creation of Iowa's open-records and open-meeting laws has been forgotten in recent years as public officials retreat into secrecy to search for school superintendents, city managers and other top managers. The Legislature should tighten those laws to mandate public applications and interviews.

While scrapping work done to date on the presidential search leaves a lot of unanswered questions, it also offers an opportunity to start over, to get it right this time and perhaps to rebuild relations with the U of I and the public in the process. The best way to do that: Do the job in the open, hold all meetings in public and make public the names of the applicants.

And about that advisory committee: Regents should dispense with it if they are not interested in its advice.