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UI searchers could learn from C.R.
Mark Bowden, Editor

The Gazette

November 27, 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.]

It would be worth Gov. Tom Vilsack’s time to talk to Mayor Kay Halloran and members of the Cedar Rapids City Council when he’s in town today if he’s serious about restoring credibility to the search for a new president for the University of Iowa.

  Not necessarily because there’s a likely UI leader in our midst, but because these folks know how to conduct a credible, effective process to fill an executive position.

  Vilsack late last week said he was coming to the Corridor this afternoon to meet with state Board of Regents President Michael Gartner and UI faculty, staff and student leaders to resurrect a presidential search process that died 10 days ago, ending a sometimes contentious but almost always secretive search to find a successor to David Skorton.

  What went wrong and why needs a thorough public airing, but more importantly, the new search must be conducted in the open: Applicants must be told they will be publicly identified, and the regents must be forthright in explaining the process, identifying the job’s criteria and conducting the search. Cedar Rapids didn’t do everything right, but the council’s commitment to an open process to hire a city manager earlier this year was one of the best approaches to filling a high-profile public job in the past two decades in Iowa. The search wasn’t steeped in secrecy, and the public and the city are better for it. Not only did Cedar Rapids hire an exceptional city manager, but also the public’s confidence in and support of city government seem to have increased.

  Before the city manager search was launched, the council gave the public a solid explanation of the process, defined the criteria by which candidates would be measured and vowed that the leading candidates for the job would be publicly identified.

  During the search, which was conducted by an employment firm, details about all applicants, excluding their identities, were provided in aggregate to the public. This information — gender, age, education, professional experience and so forth — assured the public that worthy and well-qualified candidates were being considered for the job.

  In the end, five finalists were announced, and the public was afforded a chance to meet them before the council made its selection.

  At the core of the destined-to-fail UI presidential search is the extraordinary secrecy imposed on the entire process by the regents. Secrecy was an option, not a lawful requirement.

  From the get-go, the public didn’t know how the search would be conducted, what the criteria were or who applied for the job. There were secret interview meetings and secret pacts among the search committee members. Some details were leaked to the news media over the past two weeks, but apparently only as an attempt to dilute public criticism about a botched process that cost more than $100,000 and gave Iowa government’s spirit of openness a black eye.

  It appears the regents took license with a 1988 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that says applications for public jobs might be made confidential if the person so requests or if the public agency ‘‘could reasonably believe that those persons would be discouraged’’ from applying if applications were available for public inspection.

  That ruling needs to be corrected with a new law that gives the public more accountability. Ironically, the law on the books requires neither that job applications be confidential nor that the search be conducted in secrecy, but in the case of the UI presidential search, they were and it was.

  Had only the regents reviewed Cedar Rapids’ experience in hiring a city manager, the UI might have a new president by now and not be restarting a search. When in doubt, keep the public’s business before the public

  GARTNER HAS been tarred with a broad brush over the secrecy that shrouded the UI presidential search.

  Ironically, Gartner, as an Iowa newspaper editor and a television network news executive, championed the public’s right to know on many public policy issues and procedures that public agencies and boards tried to keep from the public’s eye.

  Several years ago, he endowed the Iowa Freedom of Information Council with a significant cash gift to set up an ‘‘openness defense fund’’ that Iowa news media can tap to pursue right-to-know cases in court. It would be ironic if some of this money is needed to get the full story on the UI presidential search.