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Regents should focus on the spirit of the law


Iowa City Press-Citizen

November 21, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, 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 Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

It probably will take lawyers and judges to sort out whether the Iowa state Board of Regents actually violated the letter of Iowa’s Opening Meetings Law by holding several closed-session meetings in the past week without announcing each meeting. But we, along with many other members of the University of Iowa community, are more concerned that the board so flagrantly violated the spirit of that law.

The regents deny breaking any laws and claim that the meetings were separate parts of a closed-session meeting that started Nov. 9 and continued for several days. But such bureaucratic shenanigans make it look like the board is more concerned with finding legal loopholes than in ensuring that the university community remains a full partner in the search for a new UI president. Even if the decision to combine the meetings is determined to be technically legal, the board is setting a dangerous precedent for making decisions in the future.

The board’s actions are particularly inappropriate given Board President Michael Gartner’s experience as a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and First Amendment advocate. Earlier this year, the Regents denied a request to meet privately with members of the UI faculty, staff and students. Viewing such a request for closed-door meetings as an attempt to skirt Iowa’s Open Meetings Law, Gartner rightly refused to participate. It’s too bad that he did not come to the same conclusion about last week’s closed session meetings, which seem every bit as ethically questionable as the requested closed-door meetings without the advantage of giving audience to the UI community’s concerns.

Gartner, the board’s president pro tem, Theresa Wahlert, and executive director Gary Steinke have said repeatedly that such secrecy is essential to ensure that the most qualified people will apply for the job. But cloaking this process in such unnecessary secrecy will start out even the best president with an impossible task: winning the hearts and minds of the UI faculty, staff and students who were disenfranchised during the search process.

Yes, Iowa law gives regents discretion over presidential searches, but it is in everyone’s best interest to keep the process as transparent as possible. The university community was already up in arms that the regents seemed poised to break tradition and to choose a president without bringing the finalists to campus. By disbanding the search committee and rejecting all four of the candidates recommended by the committee, the regents have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to keep this process above board.

We need a new board that can be trusted, and we need new legislation to require that those pledged to keep government open and accessible actually conduct government business in an open and accessible manner.