July: UW shouldn’t hide finalist names

2015 Columns

A provision snuck into the state budget bill by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee would deal a significant blow to open government in Wisconsin.

The provision, part of an omnibus motion of changes affecting the University of Wisconsin System, would exempt universities from the rule in place for all other state agencies regarding the naming of finalists for key positions. No longer would they need to identify the five most qualified applicants, or each applicant if there are fewer than five.

Moreover, only a handful of positions would be subject to even this limited disclosure: UW System president and vice presidents, and the chancellor and some vice chancellors at each campus. Currently, the finalist disclosure law applies to finalists for all state positions not in the classified service.

The change will keep the public—state legislators included—from knowing which applicants are passed up for dozens of important university jobs, including highly paid coaches and top administrators.

Media outlets across the state have condemned the change, which passed on a 12-4 party line vote with Republicans in the majority.

“Take it out,” advised the Wisconsin State Journal. “The public has a right to see a list of finalists for key public positions before an applicant is hired.”

“The Joint Finance Committee’s action would further erode an open records law that is needed in a democratic government,” wrote the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

“This change in public records law doesn’t belong in the budget bill,” argued the Kenosha News. “At the very least, a policy change like this ought to be discussed on its own, not as part of must-pass legislation.”

And Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial writer Ernst-Ulrich Franzen speculated that lawmakers want “to escape any real discussion or even awareness of the measure. And that’s because they know that the argument for the measure is so weak it would not survive public scrutiny.”

Ironically, in April, the Joint Finance Committee yanked another secrecy provision affecting the UW from the budget submitted by Gov. Scott Walker. This one would have shielded records of university research, including controversial experiments involving dangerous pathogens.

Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, a member of the Joint Finance Committee, has offered this defense of the provision regarding finalists: “Highly successful and qualified individuals who currently hold a position somewhere else may be less inclined to apply if they know their name is going to be made public, even if they aren’t up for final consideration.”

But applicants for high-level jobs at public universities have long accepted disclosure as part of the process. There is no evidence the UW System has suffered a dearth of qualified candidates as a result.

Alex Hummel, spokesman for the UW System, says the change would “focus” finalist disclosure rules on top administrators, “not our larger-than-typical unclassified staff population, as is currently the case.”

But why is transparency for these other jobs a bad idea? Consider that, in January, the UW publicly named its two top candidates to head the University of Wisconsin Press. Before the final selection was made, both made public presentations outlining their vision for this important institution. Isn’t that an example of how things should work?

If lawmakers don’t pull this provision from the budget, Gov. Walker should use his veto pen to do it himself. The university system does not need, or deserve, an exemption from accountability.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders, associate editor of The Progressive magazine, is the group’s president.