CHEYENNE — A legislative committee unanimously endorsed a bill that would allow searches for University of Wyoming and state community college presidents to be closed to the public.
The House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee voted 9-0 Monday to send the measure to the House floor for debate after hearing more than an hour of testimony.
House Bill 223 was proposed after media outlets in the state challenged in court the decision by the UW Board of Trustees to hold a secret search for a new president to replace President Tom Buchanan, who is retiring this year.
Proponents of the bill argue the university could attract more quality candidates than if the search were done in the open. Opponents contend an open process when considering finalists can be helpful in making the right choice.
A state district judge in Laramie ruled last week that the UW trustees must disclose the finalists for the university’s next president. A list of five or more finalists is due to trustees early next month.
The Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming Tribune Eagle and The Associated Press sued to release the finalist names after the trustees decided to keep the search process secret until their final choice to lead the state’s only public university was announced.
The trustees are considering an appeal of the decision to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
If HB223 passes the Legislature and is signed by the governor, it would take effect immediately, possibly nullifying the case.
UW trustees board President Dave Bostrom testified that a confidential search results in more quality candidates than a public search because some candidates don’t want their names publicized for various reasons.
He noted that UW attracted 88 applicants while the University of Florida, which has an entirely open process, attracted only about 20.
UW had “effectively stocked our pond with the best and the largest number of fish,” raising the odds of getting the best candidate available, he said.
Search committees had narrowed UW’s list of candidates to eight, but when the court decision was made, four of the eight pulled out, he said.
“While we do have high quality candidates because our search started as a confidential search, we certainly don’t have all of the best fish in that pool right now, and I think that’s tragic,” Bostrom said.
Bruce Moats, attorney for the media outlets that brought the lawsuit, said UW is owned by the public and citizens should have some say in helping chose the new president.
Moats said it can’t be helped that some candidates drop out of consideration because their names will be released.
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful search and the search isn’t going to be better in the long run if you have the public input,” he said.
Ed Mosher, a member of the Laramie County Community College Board of Trustees, said the public vetting of the finalists in the college’s recent search for a president was helpful to him in determining the best fit for the community.
In addition, he said, “I think we need to be conscious not to create the indispensable man position in terms of the position that the president holds. There must be other people who can do those jobs.”
But Rep. James Byrd, D-Cheyenne, said the fact that four candidates dropped out of the UW search because their names may go public caused him concern.
“I would rather err on the side of confidentiality and knowing that I get the best qualified candidate that can run our university than going the other route and getting a second-rate individual in that position that passes public muster,” Byrd said.