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You wouldn’t get to know who is a finalist to be a university president in Utah under this new bill

HB318 would allow colleges to keep the names of any finalists for the position secret.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Harris Simmons, chairman of the Utah Board of Regents, presents the University of Utah presidential medallion to U. President Ruth Watkins during her inauguration ceremony at Kingsbury Hall on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. Watkins announced in January that she will be leaving the U. near the end of the coming spring term and the national search for a new president has been announced. A bill in the Utah Legislature would make that process more secretive.

As the state starts its search for a new president to lead the University of Utah, lawmakers are toying with the idea of making the process less open to the public.

Under current state law, when a university or college in Utah is looking for a new leader, it has to announce the top three finalists for the position. It then holds forums with each candidate for students, faculty and the community to weigh in.

But that would no longer be required under a bill proposed Tuesday.

With HB318, a college would only have to publicly announce the person who is given the job. And the other finalists who made it to the last round of interviews could remain secret — permanently.

Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, said the process as it stands is “really problematic” for the candidates who, in the end, aren’t named as the university’s president. Their name is out in the public and it lets their employer know they were looking for a new job.

“It does put candidates in a compromising position with their current employment,” the lawmaker said during a hearing Tuesday.

She suggested it’s also possible the state isn’t attracting the best candidates when there’s an opening at one of the eight public universities here because of the policy. National research does not indicate that’s the case.

But the proposal passed with a unanimous vote in committee and moves next to the House floor. If it is given final approval this session and signed by the governor, it could potentially impact the process, already underway, to find a new leader at the U.

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins announced last month that she’d be stepping down in April to take a job with Strada Impact, a national education nonprofit. Applications for her replacement are open now. And it was expected that the board for the Utah System of Higher Education, which oversees the hiring, would announce the three finalists sometime this fall after the appointed search committee reviewed the pool of candidates.

That’s the process that Watkins, previously the senior vice president of academic affairs at the U., was hired under when she was one of the finalists to lead the U. in 2018.

The other two candidates at the time were Nicholas Jones, an executive vice president at Pennsylvania State University, and Thomas Katsouleas, who was then the executive vice president of the University of Virginia. Jones has since stayed in his position. And Katsouleas was hired in 2019 as the president for the University of Connecticut.

Ballard, the sponsor of HB318, said Tuesday that naming those individuals is unfair if they want to stay in their position, like Jones, if they aren’t offered a job in Utah. Or maybe they feel they have to leave afterward no matter what because it’s now known that they were applying elsewhere.

Dave Woolstenhulme, the commissioner of higher education for the state, spoke in support of the measure. Woolstenhulme helped draft the bill and said Watkins leaving the U. “gave us an opportunity to look at the process” and see if it “is really allowing us to bring in the best candidates.”

He added: “When candidates find out their name is going to be made public … they have to try to explain to their bosses and colleagues why they’re interviewing somewhere else.”

Some, he said, have previously dropped out of the process in Utah during other recent college presidential search when they were told that their name would be posted.

He believes making it less transparent and more confidential will make it better overall for the candidates.

Research published by Inside Higher Ed, though, doesn’t find that to be the case. In fact, the publication says it actually could lead a university to trouble. Having a public process allows for more scrutiny of candidates and possible issues to surface before they’re hired.

The study on the topic was conducted by Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She said there is “no reason to believe” a secret hiring process leads to better presidents.

“Think of this — until just recently, all presidential searches were open,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “To state that secret searches yield better presidents is to imply that all previous presidents were not good. That just doesn’t make sense.”

The issue came to a head at the University of Colorado, for example. A conservative lawmaker was named as the sole finalist to lead the school. That led to outrage among students and staff, who questioned the lawmaker’s voting record on issues, including his opposition to gay marriage.

Other researchers also believe that not allowing the university community to provide input on the process leads to more distrust of the candidate who is ultimately named president.

Woolstenhulme said Tuesday, though, that students and faculty will still be able to weigh in on three final candidates — those just won’t be “announced in the paper and online.” But it’s unclear how that will work and how any forums with the finalists would be kept private.

If students attend, what would keep them from talking about the candidates outside of the event or publishing their name on social media?

Woolstenhulme only said: “It just won’t be as open as it was in the past.”

No one in the public commented on the bill. The proposal would also clean up other language and structural changes that come after the state last year merged Utah’s eight public colleges and eight technical colleges into one system for higher education.

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