University of Wyoming president search bill moves on fast track

2013-02-02T11:00:00Z 2013-03-01T20:33:30Z University of Wyoming president search bill moves on fast trackBy JOAN BARRON Star-Tribune capital bureau Casper Star-Tribune Online
February 02, 2013 11:00 am  • 

CHEYENNE -- The state Senate worked quickly Friday in an effort to advance legislation that would allow the University of Wyoming to withhold the identities of finalists for UW president.

House Bill 223 received unanimous endorsement from the Senate Education Committee in the morning, and by the time lawmakers wrapped up their day's work before entering the weekend, it received a quick, affirmative first vote from the full Senate.

The bill was introduced on Jan. 22 and has already passed the state House. It faces two more floor votes in the Senate, with at least one vote scheduled for Monday.

Supporters say they need to get the bill through the Legislature to fulfill the commitment to UW presidential applicants that their identities be kept secret.

Last fall, the UW Board of Trustees voted to make the search process private, except for a 31-member screening committee.

Earlier this week, a resolution in favor of transparency in the presidential selection process failed in the UW Faculty Senate on a 33-21 vote.

Three UW faculty members argued against the bill -- and the faculty vote -- on Friday.

Donal O'Toole, professor of veterinarian medicine, said the faculty senate doesn't truly represent the opinion of the entire faculty because it includes so many junior faculty members.

O'Toole said the search should be public because the university is a publicly funded institution.

"This is going to be my boss," said Jeanne Holland, associate professor of English. "So I think that openness is essential here."

Friday marked the first time UW faculty members testified on the legislation.

In response to the UW trustees' decision to make the presidential search private, the Casper Star-Tribune, The Wyoming Tribune Eagle and The Associated Press filed a lawsuit claiming the secrecy violated the state's public records law.

District Court Judge Jeff Donnell of Laramie ruled for the news organizations and said the defendants had been unable to show that making the names of applicants public would cause irreparable harm to the search process.

House Bill 223 is the result of Donnell's ruling.

Sponsors of the bill say that four of eight finalists for UW president dropped out after the court ruling. University officials say two of the four may resubmit their applications if the bill passes.

The bill is sponsored by House Majority Floor Leader Kermit Brown and Senate Majority Leader Phil Nicholas, both Laramie Republicans, and others.

The legislation also makes presidential searches for the state's seven community colleges confidential.

Bill sponsors said earlier that UW trustees directed a search committee to recommend five or more finalists by Feb. 5, or Tuesday, to replace UW President Tom Buchanan, who is retiring this summer.

That date has to be set back.

Chris Boswell, UW vice president for governmental and community affairs, said Friday that Trustee Dick Davis of Sheridan, who is chairman of the second screening committee, reported his group could not meet Tuesday's deadline because all of the applicants' references haven't been checked.

Moreover, the committee can't meet the board's instructions because there are no longer five finalists, he said.

Boswell also noted that the judge has not filed a final order.

Testifying against the bill Friday were Jim Angell, director of the Wyoming Press Association, and Jim Wood of Wyoming Newspapers, Inc. Wood said a public hiring process is more difficult but people expect transparency in decisions of major appointments.

Angell said the appointment for a president to head the state's only four-year public institution of higher education is of great public interest and the person selected could be the highest-paid employee in Wyoming.

Bill Schilling, director of the Wyoming Business Alliance, pointed out the university is a much larger and different operation today than it was during the last search eight years ago when Buchanan was selected.

Buchanan has said he would not apply for the job today if the process was public.

Ironically, Buchanan may not have been selected in 2005 if the presidential search process had been closed.

In that search, the trustees decided to release the names of the finalists. Buchanan's name wasn't on the list. Trustees added his name in response to a petition signed by about 300 faculty members, according to published reports. The other finalists dropped out, and Buchanan got the job.

The UW trustees think they were fortunate Buchanan's hiring turned out so well, Chad Baldwin, director of UW institutional communications, said Friday.

"It showed that even a broken process can produce a successful president," he said. "But the odds aren't the greatest."

The trustees, Baldwin added, believe the deepest pool of applicants will improve the odds of getting a good president.

Schilling said failure of the bill would have an “unraveling effect" on the search process.

Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper, a bill sponsor, said the public has been involved in the process through trustee visits to communities to find out what people want in a UW president and public representation on the screening committee.

Sen. Paul Barnard, R-Evanston, a Senate Education Committee member, said he favors an open process from the beginning but that is not possible because of the confidential commitment to the applicants.

"The cow's already out the door." Barnard said.

Contact capital bureau reporter Joan Barron at 307-632-1244 or joan.barron@trib.com

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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