LARAMIE — The University of Wyoming should release the names of finalists in its search for a new president, even though a new state law allows colleges to conduct such efforts in secret, an attorney argued Wednesday.
The argument by attorney Bruce Moats, who represents several media organizations, came at a hearing before District Judge Jeffrey Donnell, who took the issue under advisement and will make a decision later.
“I think that the bottom line comes down to ... that the public interest and openness still prevails,” Moats said after the hearing.
The university and its Board of Trustees want Donnell to change his Jan. 23 ruling that UW must release the names of finalists to replace retiring President Tom Buchanan.
The Wyoming Tribune Eagle, the Casper Star-Tribune and The Associated Press previously filed a lawsuit challenging the decision by trustees to hold a confidential search and release only the name of the new president when that person is selected.
After Donnell sided with the media, the Legislature fast-tracked a new law that changes Wyoming’s open records and meetings law so the selection process involving UW and state community college presidents can be closed to the public. The law took effect earlier this month.
UW’s search has continued and will soon determine finalists. However, university officials say some likely finalists have pulled out or say they will withdraw if their names are made public.
Moats argued during the hearing that the state Legislature overstepped its authority by enacting a new law that seeks to overturn Donnell’s decision. He added the Legislature’s action violated the separation of powers.
Donnell noted that if he doesn’t change his ruling, trustees could simply declare the search failed and begin again under the new privacy law.
“You may win the battle and lose the war,” he told Moats.
Moats replied that a new lawsuit would result from any new search because the public’s right to know who is being considered for president of the state’s only four-year public university outweighs the exemption provided by the new law.
Bruce Salzburg, attorney for the university and its Board of Trustees, said the Legislature was not overturning a court case because the appeals process has not yet ended.
Donnell noted that UW recently hired a new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences after conducting an open search.
“We keep it secret for the big boss, is that the way it works?” he asked Salzburg.
Salzburg said seeking the president’s job is different than applying for a dean’s position.
Applicants for dean positions are usually college professors whose interest doesn’t raise any issues with superiors, while a president’s job can attract presidents and top administrators at other campuses who have a lot to lose in their current positions if it becomes known they are looking for another job, he said.