The monthslong search for the next president of the University of Minnesota has produced a single “finalist” for the position: Joan Gabel, provost at the University of South Carolina.

The search committee sifted through more than five dozen applications and interviewed nine candidates before forwarding three names, including Ms. Gabel’s, to the Board of Regents. The other two “semifinalists” stated that they were unwilling to be named publicly except as the sole finalist. That pair’s approach improperly elevates their individual interests over the interests of the university and the public and undermines the spirit of Minnesota’s data-practices and open-meetings laws.

Minnesota law for decades has required public disclosure of the identities of finalists for public positions — not only university presidents, but also school and park superintendents, police chiefs and so on. If these two bashful presidential applicants did not know about that legal reality when they applied, they failed to exercise due diligence. If they did know what the law required, their late-stage reticence suggests an attitude that the law should not apply to them. Either possibility reflects poorly on someone who seeks to lead the university. The regents properly refused to advance those applicants to finalist status.

In 2004, in connection with an earlier university presidential search, the Minnesota Supreme Court explained: “That some candidates for a high profile public post may choose not to make themselves available publicly is not enough. The fact is that presidential searches in a majority of states are subject to public access statutes at least as broad as [Minnesota’s] Data Practices Act and Open Meeting Law. … [T]he prevalence of these ‘open’ processes does rebut any generalization that presidential searches cannot effectively be performed under such requirements.”

Even if some cautious applicants are highly qualified, the only way to broadly evaluate their qualifications against those of other applicants would be to name them all publicly. Minnesotans should not accept generalized speculation that excellent public servants cannot be selected by a process that compares public candidates. Minnesota law keeps applicant data confidential until an applicant becomes a finalist. That is an appropriate balance of applicant and public interests.

The public interest is further served by a public multiple-candidate selection process. Regardless of Gabel’s qualifications, selection of a single finalist deprives the regents — and other stakeholders both within the university community and throughout the public — of the opportunity to compare the talents and visions of multiple candidates for this important position. A single-finalist approach even carries potential risk for the finalist; failure to obtain the position after further interviews could bring more sting than losing out to another finalist. In 2002, the regents passed over all three presidential finalists selected by the search committee and instead picked someone outside the process.

In conducting future presidential searches, the regents should embrace both the spirit and the letter of Minnesota’s data-practices and open-meetings laws. Regents should emphasize from the outset that they will consider only applicants willing to be named and interviewed publicly if and when they are selected as finalists, and search committees should refuse to forward to the regents any applicant who refuses to be named publicly if chosen for interviews with the regents. That approach, rather than a change in the law to restrict public disclosure of finalist data (“Taking stock of U’s finalist for top post,” editorial, Dec. 10), will respect the finalists, encourage a single search producing a pool of qualified applicants and ensure full consideration of multiple candidates.

 

John Borger, of Minneapolis, is a retired attorney and a board member for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.