Expanding secrecy is a bad reaction

By Jerry Raehal
Laramie Boomerang publisher
The University of Wyoming needs the best president available if it is to continue to succeed and grow.
That is one thing everyone involved in the question of whether the names of the finalists for that job are made public could agree on. But how to achieve that goal has become a matter of contention, court proceedings and now a proposed bill at the Wyoming Legislature.
There will always be those who believe that confidential and secretive proceedings are the best way to get things done. And there will always be advocates who insist that the public has a vested interest in knowing as much as possible, especially about the doings of governments and public institutions.
Not surprisingly, newspapers consider part of their responsibility to their communities and their readers is to be an advocate for the open flow of information. That’s part of the watchdog role that is considered to be an integral function of a free press.
That’s not to ascribe nefarious and sinister motives to those who disagree on this issue. We believe that the UW officials and state legislators who want to avoid publishing finalists’ names for the UW president’s job sincerely believe there will be a stronger pool of applicants, especially current presidents, if the process is kept confidential.
We disagree.
Let’s remember current President Tom Buchanan was not a finalist during the last search. When finalists’ names were announced, there were howls of protest on campus, in the Legislature, all around Laramie and from all corners of the state. As a result, the search committee changed its collective mind and added Buchanan to the list of finalists.
We don’t have to agree with all of Buchanan’s decisions to say that he has done a great job as president. Would someone else from the list of finalists have done a great job as well? Quite possibly, but if that had been a secret search we would have never known how truly effective Buchanan would prove to be.
But second guessing who is and isn’t on the list of finalists is far from the biggest reason to make that list public. If there aren’t public visits and meetings where the candidates can meet faculty members, administrators and students, how would he or she build the confidence needed to lead the university. Indeed, the secret approach means there is no chance to get feedback or participation in the process from those important constituents who help make UW what it is.
It’s interesting that most institutions, especially those that are publicly funded, traditionally hold open searches. In fact the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities has published a detailed guide to help members with presidential searches. That guide specifically recommends that public visits to campus by finalists should be part of the search.
The guide says: “Campus visits promote acceptance of the search process among constituents, help to sell candidates on the institution and provide yet another measure of the candidate’s fit.”
The guide goes on to describe how to make sure the candidates meet and interact with as many people as possible during their visit. Obviously that organization doesn’t believe that the publication of the finalists’ names is detrimental to the search process.
We understand that going through the secret process might make the job easier to find a president, but that misses the point of open meetings laws. Keeping government open to the people makes the process harder, but keeps it open, and in the case of Buchanan, more effective.
We’re disappointed by the reaction from some in the Legislature to introduce a bill that would make presidential searches for all Wyoming colleges and UW completely secret. We hope they (or their fellow legislators) realize just how bad an idea this is.