During the 2021 general legislative session, Utah lawmakers updated a bill to maintain transparency in higher education.
House Bill 318 originally proposed the closure of public access to the names of semifinalists for university or college presidents. The latest substitute of the bill reverses the proposal, which became a topic of discussion.
Currently, Utah law requires the names of the three to five finalists to be released to the public. This policy has been in place for 20 years and allows opportunity for public input to the search committee about the candidates before a final decision is made.
“The finalists then have an opportunity to meet with university stakeholders, including faculty, students, alumni, and, most importantly, the public. Members of the public have an opportunity to question the finalists and provide valuable input into the selection process,” said Jeffery J. Hunt, an attorney working with the Utah Media Coalition.
Hunt said the original version of the bill would “totally gut” the public process by only allowing the name of a single finalist to be announced.
“That would prevent students and the public from having any meaningful input and scrutiny of the search process,” Hunt continued.
As reported in a story by Inside Higher Ed, Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, researched executive searches at universities. Wilde found an increased inclination of governing boards to hire executive search firms as the cause for the uptick in secret searches; confidentiality was the policy in 51% of the firms studied.
Supporters of the original bill argued that a secret search process was the only way to ensure qualified applicants. During the Senate Education Committee Hearing on Feb. 24, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Melissa Ballard of North Salt Lake, raised the point that any unselected finalists will have to return to their current job, which could negatively affect that working situation.
HB 318 is especially topical, given that the University of Utah is currently in an ongoing search for their next president.
“The original version of the bill would have closed the search process for university and college presidents. These are positions of enormous public responsibility and trust, and the public should be allowed to participate in the vetting and selection process,” said Hunt, an attorney at Parr Brown Gee & Loveless.
When Salt Lake Community College was looking for a new president in 2014, they named three finalists, whose names were then sent to the Board of Regents. This gave community members time to weigh in on the decision before Deneece G. Huftalin was ultimately named president.
“The notion that we need a secret process is also an insult to all of Utah’s currently sitting college and university presidents, including the president of SLCC, all of whom were selected through an open search process. No one is saying these presidents are not highly qualified or that Utah had to settle for second best,” Hunt stated.
A version of the bill that excluded provisions for a secret search passed unanimously out of committee Feb. 24, and the House approved the bill March 5.
HB 318, now enrolled in its final form, moves to Gov. Spencer Cox for his approval or veto.