By: Mark Fitzgerald
Michigan legislators move to close off
scrutiny of university presidents; Senate
passes bill to keep selection process secret sp.
EMBARRASSED BY LAWSUITS from newspapers that forced Michigan colleges to open their presidential searches, the state Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill March 30 that would keep much of the process secret.
The bill now moves to the Michigan House of Representatives, where the Michigan Press Association and other opponents hope the measure faces a rougher time.
Free-press advocacy groups have not characterized this Michigan legislature as particularly anti-press, but the presidential search issue hit a raw nerve with the vigorous sponsor of the bill, Battle Creek Republican John “Joe” Schwartz.
“The [media] can’t [be allowed to] destroy careers and scare qualified candidates away, which is what will happen” under a system open to public scrutiny, Schwartz was quoted as saying in a Detroit News article by Lansing bureau reporter Mark Hornbeck.
Schwartz and other proponents of shutting the public out of the search process say the current system discourages many qualified candidates who do not want their current college board employers to know they are considering another position.
Michigan Press Association general counsel Dawn Phillips, however, scoffs at that notion.
For one thing, she says, Michigan’s open presidential search process ? which for most state universities is dictated by the state Constitution ? is more theoretical than real.
“That argument is a crock. We have never tried the open process in the state of Michigan,” Phillips said in a telephone interview.
Indeed, the secrecy with which two recent high-profile university searches were conducted ? at the University of Michigan and Michigan State, respectively ? prompted lawsuits from the state’s larger newspapers.
In both cases, courts agreed that the universities had violated the state’s open meeting laws by their search methods.
Sen. Schwartz’s bill, which passed the Senate 28-9, throws some bones to the notion of public scrutiny.
It would require college boards to form search committees with fewer members than a board quorum. One member must be chosen from the faculty, one has to be from the student body, and one, in the words of the bill, must be an “average citizen.”
The process of choosing among the final three candidates must be public, according to the bill.