Controversial choice of school president gets second look

Published November 20, 2009 10:22 pm
Education » The first process, which hired ex-UCAT president, should have been clearer, board chair says.
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The Utah College of Applied Technology board will reconsider its controversial choice of president amid allegations that the board violated state law in choosing him.

In October, the board re-hired Robert Brems, who resigned as UCAT president amid a scandal two years ago, to replace Richard White. But Thomas Bingham, UCAT board chairman, admitted Friday that the board wasn't transparent enough in making its choice.

Only the board's selection committee, not the full board, interviewed the finalists. Also, Utah law requires the names of finalists for the position be publicly disclosed, but the board didn't announce them until the meeting began, Bingham said. The meeting agenda also should have been clearer about the board's plans to hire a president that day, Bingham said.

Bingham said the board's legal counsel has advised the board that the process was in "substantial compliance with the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act ... with the exception of some technical omissions."

He said the board will withdraw its decision to rehire Brems at a special board meeting Nov. 30. The board, at that meeting, will then interview Brems and the other finalist, Davis Applied Technology College President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Bouwhuis, and make a new decision.

"We thought it prudent to go back and correct those things so there's no question about it whether it was done properly or not," Bingham said Friday. "We don't want any clouds over this."

Bingham said the board did not intentionally omit parts of the process, and the board will receive further training about Utah open-meeting laws at its meeting in January.

He said, however, that the board is only reconsidering its decision because of problems with the process last month, not because of backlash over Brems' past.

Two years ago Brems stepped down as president of UCAT after a state audit revealed that UCAT's Mountainland campus built a parade float for the Utah Republican Party initially using some college money. The audit also found that Brems accepted an "unreasonable" $157,782 transition package when he was promoted from Mountainland president to UCAT president and said he underreported his income to the IRS. UCAT is a statewide system of technical training conducted at eight campuses across the state.

Brems said Friday he never "knowingly or intentionally violated any policies or statutes."

"I've really tried to put the audit behind me," Brems said. "I always believed I was playing according to the rules."

He resigned two years ago because, "There were a number of misunderstandings and even some philosophical misunderstandings between my previous employers and me," he said of the state Board of Regents, which oversaw UCAT before a change in state law. "I don't hold any grudges toward them, and I look forward to working with them in the future."

Bingham said the board rehired Brems in October with full knowledge of the audit and chose him because they deemed him most qualified for the job. He said there were extenuating circumstances the audit did not take into consideration.

Despite already choosing Brems once, Bingham said the board will give both finalists equal consideration Nov. 30.

Utah Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg, who also sits on the UCAT board, said Friday he's pleased that the full board will have a chance to interview the finalists this time and he's pleased the board will follow the law. But he doesn't think the board is going far enough to correct the situation. He said he would like to see the search process start over again from scratch.

"It sounds like they'll just more legally appoint Mr. Brems," Sederburg said. "I was hoping it would be more open than that."

Sederburg was the only board member to publicly vote against Brems' appointment in October. And Sederburg sent a letter to board members earlier this month asking them to withdraw the decision to hire Brems because the hiring process violated the intent of state law and was insulting to board members who were not allowed to participate in the interviews.

Sederburg said he'll try to keep an open mind, but he'd be surprised if he ended up voting to re-hire Brems, given the audit findings and other issues.

He said he hopes all the board members read the audit before the meeting and have a robust discussion before hiring anyone.

"I think there's kind of an inside club that's running the ATCs and they've worked with Robert over the years and they want to keep it as an inside game," Sederburg said of why the board re-hired Brems in the first place despite the audit findings. "I think this kind of decision was made some time ago by some of the leaders."

Brems said Friday he doesn't think that's the case.

"I went through a process the same as the other candidates, and I believe that they liked the work I've done in the past and I believe they would like to continue that in the future," Brems said.

He said he's a little disappointed to have to go through the selection process again, but he wants to make sure the process is correctly carried out.

Bouwhuis said he was surprised when the board chose Brems in October and said the process was different than the other times he was a finalist for the position.

He said he's hoping for the best this time around.

"I have faith in the system, and I have faith that I've got an equal shot at getting the position at this time," he said.



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