Western’s next president could be decided without public input due to a bill that would allow public four-year institutions to privately select a candidate.
Under Senate Bill 5584, Western’s board of trustees would also require candidates to be approved by the state Senate. If the candidate were to be rejected by the Senate, they could not be reappointed to the position for one year.
The bill, introduced by Washington state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, would exempt the university’s board or trustees from the Open Public Meetings Act. This means the university board could decide to excluded Western students and other community members from the board’s selection process.
The Open Public Meetings Act prohibits government agencies from taking final action on anything, including finalists for university presidents in private meetings. But it allows agencies to go over qualifications for applicants in private.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said the coalition thinks the bill is fundamentally flawed.
“For universities to say, ‘If we had an open process we would just never get good candidates,’ we think, is not correct.”
“It would explicitly authorize the university to do the entire process in secret,” Nixon said. “Clearly you can’t hold the regents [or trustees] accountable for the choices they made if all the public hears is a name at the end of the process.”
The WCOG is a non-partisan, non-profit organization standing for government transparency.
Senior Adam Bresnan, international business major, thinks the presidential search should be more public. The bill has a “good boys club” feeling to it, he said.
“I feel that the Senate doesn’t have a lot of knowledge about the trustee’s decision or about the candidate at hand,” Bresnan said. “So I don’t really understand why that’s required.”
Western fully opposes Senate Bill 5584, Director of Communications Paul Cocke said in an email.
The council of presidents testified against the bill. The council is an organization of public state universities including Western, University of Washington and Washington State University.
According to the testimony, a president should not be appointed by a party that controls the Senate, but rather “a diverse set of community members who possess an in-depth understanding of campus culture.”
The testimony does not mention a position on the bill making the process private.
“We have a brand new cadre of four-year college and university presidents at the present time. The high quality of those leaders and the reputation they are building all around the state is indicative of a process that works and should be allowed to continue,” wrote Paul Francis, executive director of the council of presidents, in the testimony.
The Senate nomination process is very superficial and will enable partisan politics into the process, Nixon said. The coalition believes the bill closes off the selection process even more. Putting the name before the Senate does not remedy that issue, he said.
“We only file lawsuits sometimes,” Nixon said. “If it doesn’t look like anybody else is going to do it and if it looks like there is an important principle that needs to be established.”
The WCOG is currently in a lawsuit with UW for the selection process of President Ana Mari Cauce in regards to the Open Public Meetings Act.
“In their case, we believe they reached an agreement behind closed doors, which is a violation,” Nixon said.
This has been a standard practice for UW and WSU does something similar, Nixon said. The coalition hasn’t looked in depth at other public universities, but this is a recurring pattern. Other government agencies around the state for positions like city manager often have an open process by the time it’s been narrowed down.
“For universities to say, ‘If we had an open process we would just never get good candidates,’ we think, is not correct,” Nixon said.
For Western’s presidential search, the university used a search committee of various members of the community, including students, staff and trustees. The committee gave the board of trustees a group of five candidates for the trustees to consider, Cocke said.
“Goals of the search process included being as inclusionary as possible,” Cocke said. “The Trustees were committed to a presidential search process that fully engaged the Western campus community and other stakeholders with numerous and varied opportunities for involvement and participation.”
The board of trustees conducted their second round of interviews privately. Then on March 30, 2015, there was another meeting discussing the finalists. The first portion was private and then they switched to an open meeting where they voted on candidates to propose to visit campus, which is still available on wp.wwu.edu/presidentialsearch/.