The names of those applying for the top jobs in Tennessee’s colleges and universities could be kept confidential unless they become a finalist under legislation poised for final passage today.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who is sponsoring the bill (SB3751) at the behest of officials with the University of Tennessee and Board of Regents systems, said that confidentiality could lead more highly-qualified people to seek jobs as university presidents and college campus chancellors.
But House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh said the present laws making the names of applicants public has worked well, as evidenced by the administrators now in place at state campuses.
The bill was debated in the House on Wednesday with a final vote put off until today. It has already passed the Senate, 30-1.
“What we’re doing is making the search for presidents of our higher education institutions secret,” said Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. “That doesn’t look good for accountability and open government.”
He said “Tennesseans deserve to know who is applying for these positions” said those applying “should want the job enough to make their applications public.”
Fitzhugh noted that Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville is now seeking a new president and 37 persons, several holding prominent positions in higher education across the nation, have publicly applied for the job.
McCormick, R-Chattanooga, countered that national search that recruit applicants for academic jobs say that “the more qualified and experienced candidates won’t put name in” if the applications are public, typically because they don’t want their current employer to know they’re seeking a new job.
McCormick also said that Tennessee has had a “mixed record” in selecting good college presidents.
“We have had some challenges in the not- too-distant past with some of the UT presidents,” he said.
The bill says that “finalists” for a college or system presidency will have their names made public at least seven days before the appointment is made. There would have to be at least three finalists for each position.
Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, questioned whether seven days was enough time for the public, students and faculty to learn about the finalists and have input into the selection.
McCormick agreed then to put off a final vote until today, allowing Shaw to file an amendment that would increase the time to 15 days.
Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, said the original version of the legislation would have been much broader, covering positions other than president and closing meetings where trustees or regents discussed the selection process. The scope was narrowed subsequently, he said, though open government advocates still believe the legislation is an unnecessary.
The version now pending would make all information on the finalists public, but keep closed the applications of non-finalists unless they agree to release of the information.
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, said the bill still means that the public will never know whether trustees picked the best applicants to become finalists.