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Utah Legislature walks back proposal to hide the names of those applying to be a university president

The changes to HB318 remove the controversial provision for the search process to be private.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this file photo, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins addresses the crowd during her inauguration, Sept. 21, 2018. With Watkins now stepping down in April 2021, the Legislature is contemplating how transparent the school must be in searching for her replacement.

The process for selecting a new president at one of the state’s public colleges will likely remain open and transparent after Utah lawmakers narrowly approved last-minute changes to a bill to ensure the names of finalists would continue to be released to the community.

On a 40-32 vote Friday, the House stripped out the controversial provision from HB318 that had attempted to make that search secret.

“It should be a public process for public universities using public funds,” argued Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, who proposed the substitute measure amending the original language. “There is a huge difference between a private employment application process and the application for leading one of our flagship public institutions.”

The bill moves next to the Senate. If that substitute passes there, too, the process now under state law stands. There is some talk, though, about possibly restoring it back again to the initial proposal. The bill has not yet been placed on the schedule for discussion in that body.

Currently, when a university or college in Utah is looking for a new leader — like the University of Utah is now — it has to announce the top three candidates for the position. It then must hold forums with each of those individuals for students, faculty and members of the public to weigh in ahead of any final decision on the appointment.

That process was adopted by the state in the early 2000s, said attorney Jeff Hunt, who represents the Utah Media Coalition. The idea, he noted, was to be more open about who was applying and to allow anyone to bring up concerns with a candidate.

“We believe there’s a lot of value in letting the public into the process,” Hunt added. “It’s saved a lot of universities across the nation from making a very bad decision. There have been cases where a candidate had a lawsuit pending against them in another state for sexual harassment, for instance, and that came up in the public discussion.”

But the first draft of HB318 proposed, among other changes, no longer requiring that. Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, the bill’s sponsor, argued that 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, she said, and it lets their employer know they were looking for a new job.

“They have to go back and explain to their institution why they were searching for another position,” she told members of the House during the debate.

The lawmaker opposed the changes to her bill to remove that provision, believing the current policy limits who applies for the job. The best candidates, she said, may be skipping out on coming to one of Utah’s eight public colleges for fear of their name being out there. National research published by Inside Higher Ed does not indicate that’s the case.

Still, Ballard wants a college to only have to publicly announce one person who is the sole finalist to be the school’s next president. And the public could weigh in at that point.

Hunt challenged that, saying: “That’s not a public process. That’s cutting the public totally out of the process.”

In addition to the search process, the proposal also cleans 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. The proposal had passed with a unanimous vote in committee before facing the pushback and updates on the House floor, including some lobbying ahead of that from the Utah Media Coalition.

“Ultimately, I think we have to side with transparency,” said Rep. James Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville. “I think it’s critical that the public knows who’s being considered for these positions.”

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, added that if only one candidate is announced, the decision is effectively already made. Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, also said universities in Utah have been served well under the current process.

“We have gotten some fabulous people that have come forward and been appointed to our universities as presidents,” he said.

Other lawmakers suggested they’d be worried about any candidate who doesn’t want their name out there. Some said it might actually improve a candidate’s standing, even if they’re not selected; they could go back to their job and negotiate a better compensation package. And they sided with the changed version recommended by Lisonbee that will be debated still in the Senate.

The bill ultimately passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Spencer Cox could potentially impact the process underway now to find a new president of the University of Utah.

Current 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.

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.

It remains to be seen if the public will be able to weigh in on those candidates — like they were able to when Watkins was selected in 2018 — before someone is appointed to permanently take the spot likely early next year.

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