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UW regents sued over secretive presidential selection method

Regent Mike Worthy drafted this Feb. 29 email in advance of finalist interviews during Washington State University's presidential search. Chris Hoyt, a lawyer who assisted in the search, said the redacted sentence was a matter of attorney-client privilege
Regent Mike Worthy drafted this Feb. 29 email in advance of finalist interviews during Washington State University's presidential search. Chris Hoyt, a lawyer who assisted in the search, said the redacted sentence was a matter of attorney-client privilege

Washington’s top research universities have faced criticism in recent months for picking their presidents in secret, preventing the public from commenting on specific candidates.

An advocacy group for government transparency now is suing the regents of the University of Washington for apparently choosing Ana Mari Cauce as president days before their public vote in October 2015, a possible violation of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Meanwhile, a Spokesman-Review analysis of more than 1,000 pages of internal emails regarding Washington State University’s presidential search has found no indication that university leaders violated state law. The WSU regents voted in March to appoint a mysterious “candidate C,” then revealed his name is Kirk Schulz.

Both universities have said the promise of confidentiality helps attract qualified applicants: Men and women serving in top posts at other schools aren’t eager to disclose when they’re searching for new jobs.

“I’ll put it to you this way,” WSU spokesman Rob Strenge said. “When the University of Idaho did an open presidential search years back, they didn’t get a single application from a sitting president. Not one.”

But a growing chorus of critics disputes that claim and says the public’s right to participate in the vetting process outweighs the personal concerns of candidates.

The American Association of University Professors last year published a statement on secretive searches, saying, “The rationale for such secrecy is that open meetings discourage applications from highly qualified candidates, although no evidence has ever been offered to suggest that this is in fact the case.”

The state attorney general’s office has condoned confidential searches, pointing to ambiguity in the Open Public Meetings Act. In a memo last November, the office said a Washington court has never ruled on the use of candidate “designations” such as A, B and C.

“The law doesn’t say that there’s a prohibition on voting on things in code,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “But there’s a section in the law that says voting should take place in public, in such a way that citizens can understand what’s being voted on.”

Nixon’s group filed the lawsuit against UW earlier this month, claiming the regents agreed to appoint Cauce, a former UW provost, in a closed-door executive session.

“The public saw only a predetermined ‘vote’ that was literally scripted in advance and conducted six days after the real decision, concealing any debate about filling one of the state’s highest-paid and most important jobs,” Katherine George, an attorney representing WCOG, wrote in the legal complaint.

Nixon said a Washington court has never fined a member of a governing body for violating the Open Public Meetings Act, which was enacted in 1971. The Legislature this year increased the maximum penalty for those who break the law, from $100 to $500 per violation.

Nixon noted that WCOG is not asking for Cauce to leave the post.

“We’re not saying that she is a bad president. We’re not saying that she should be ejected from office, even though she was picked illegally,” he said. “We think the regents need to wake up and obey the law, because right now they’re being pretty reckless about it.”

UW spokesman Norm Arkans responded in an email, “We indicated earlier we believe the regents fully complied with the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act, and we still believe that.”

UW and WSU have used private consultants and sweeping national searches to choose current and past presidents. Cauce’s predecessor, Michael Young, and WSU’s Elson Floyd, who died in June 2015, were selected through similar processes. The candidates’ identities were known only to committees of about two dozen faculty members, administrators, lawyers, consultants, students and other stakeholders.

Other schools, including Eastern Washington University, have traditionally used more transparent processes that involve campus visits and public Q&As with finalists.

Some WSU faculty members took issue with the process that resulted in Schulz’s appointment. And Brian Sonntag, who was Washington’s state auditor for 20 years, has been outspoken on the issue.

“Anytime you’re going to pick someone for a position like this, it needs to be done in the light of day,” Sonntag said. “The law calls for it, but also I think common sense says a public official should be chosen in public. The operative word is ‘public.’ ”

The WSU emails were provided in response to a public records request. The last installment was released more than four months after the regents appointed Schulz during a meeting on the Tri-Cities campus.

The emails reveal travel plans, arrangements to interview candidates and elements of the university’s public relations strategy, including numerous drafts of letters and talking points. Administrators expressed frustration over media inquiries and stressed that public forums were being held to gather generic feedback.

The emails also reveal that university leaders increasingly worried about potential leaks.

On Feb. 29, before a round of finalist interviews at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, regent Mike Worthy wrote, “By now there is a high level of speculation and rumor about these three names, and we have already had some issues relative to confidentiality. SeaTac has facilities that will allow us to use the TSA secured areas for the interviews to minimize the press and others trying to identify candidates.”

On Thursday, WSU announced it has begun a national search for a new vice president of student affairs to replace Melynda Huskey, who is in that role on an interim basis. It, too, will be a confidential search, but the final decision belongs to Schulz, not the regents.

The UW regents’ secretive selection of Cauce came to light following a review of internal emails by the Seattle Times. Nixon said it demonstrated what can happen when the selection process is hidden from public view.

“They invited only her and her family to come to the meeting; they already had a cake with her name on it,” he said. “And so it was very clear that the decision was made in an executive session, and the vote was just a complete sham.”

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