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AG orders University of Nebraska to release presidential candidates' names

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    News Media Update         NEBRASKA         Freedom of Information    

AG orders University of Nebraska to release presidential candidates’ names

  • The University of Nebraska cannot withhold records of job applicants who are interviewed in face-to-face meetings, the state’s attorney general said in an opinion.

May 11, 2004 — The University of Nebraska must make public the records of job applicants who are screened in face-to-face meetings, the state’s attorney general said in an opinion last week.

Attorney General Jon Bruning ordered the University of Nebraska, a public university, to disclose the names of eight candidates it interviewed for the school’s presidency. Within hours, university officials complied with the May 6 order, which had been requested by the Omaha World-Herald , the Lincoln Journal Star and The Associated Press.

The university had previously made public the records of its four finalists for the presidency, but refused to release information pertaining to four other candidates who were interviewed by its search committee but not officially named “finalists” for the job.

Under Nebraska’s open records law, the applications of candidates for public jobs fall into the public domain as soon as applicants accept to be interviewed. Applications generally include the release of candidates’ resumes, reference letters and school transcripts. While the interviews themselves are not open, the public must be notified of their occurrence.

Prior to 1999, when the state legislature adopted an exemption for applicants not interviewed, all applications for public jobs were considered public records. The issue in the University of Nebraska presidential search hinged on a semantics debate over the word “interview.”

Bruning rejected the university’s argument that meetings in Kansas City, Mo., on April 21 and 22 between the 18-member search committee and seven candidates were too informal to be considered “interviews” in the legal sense of the word. (The eighth candidate was interviewed in Omaha, Neb.) “Interview” is not defined in the state open records law, so Bruning used the definition in Webster’s New World Dictionary : “a meeting of people, face-to-face, as for evaluating or questioning a job applicant.”

Because candidates were interviewed by three groups of six committee members, the university further argued that a quorum was never present. Bruning didn’t accept that point either. The entire committee participated in the meetings, he said, and issues relating to quorum pertain to open meetings, not open records statutes.

University of Nebraska’s chief counsel, Richard Wood, told the World-Herald that the university’s practice of meeting informally with candidates before publically announcing a group of finalists will come to an end.

“We are going to have to do business in accordance with this opinion,” Wood told the newspaper for a May 7 article.”It will be an issue every time we have a search committee. It would be an issue any time a personnel officer does a preliminary interview before sending a list of candidates for final consideration for a job opening.”

The four candidates who were interviewed by the university search committee but not selected as finalists were: Chester S. Gardner, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Illinois-Champaign; Cynthia Hardin Milligan, dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; William E. Hogan II, chief executive officer of the Minneapolis-based Hogan Co. investment firm; and Dan Angel, president of Marshall University, located in Huntington, W.Va.

The university has said its new president will be chosen by June 1; President L. Dennis Smith is scheduled to retire June 30.

(File No. 04-R-114; Board of Regents’ Search Committee; Journal Star, World Herald) AB

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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