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Secret search for college president violated open records law, court rules

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  1. Freedom of Information
MICHIGAN -- The state Supreme Court ruled in late September that the secret search for a new president of Michigan…

MICHIGAN — The state Supreme Court ruled in late September that the secret search for a new president of Michigan State University violated the state’s open meetings and freedom of information laws.

The Board of Regents, the public body that appointed itself as the Presidential Selection Committee, improperly closed its deliberations and decisions and held private interviews with candidates in violation of the Open Meetings Act, the justices ruled.

The regents also violated FOIA by redacting the final destinations on the search committee’s travel expense forms, which the justices said are not of a “personal nature” and do not fall within FOIA’s personal privacy exemption.

“The Presidential Selection Committee did not make the decision to appoint Dr. Duderstadt publicly, it merely announced the decision publicly,” the opinion said.

The case started in May 1987 when the Board of Regents of Michigan State University appointed itself as the Presidential Selection Committee to search for a successor to resigning president Harold Shapiro. The committee chose Regent Paul W. Brown as chairman and formed three advisory committees for assistance.

The regents and committee members discussed potential candidates and culled lists through telephone calls and subquorum meetings, apparently in an attempt to avoid holding public meetings, the opinion said.

The Ann Arbor News and the Detroit Free Press brought a lawsuit, asking the court to make available information regarding candidates, discussions of the regents, decisions of the committees and the travel destinations of regents who conducted candidate interviews. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend of the court brief in the case.

According to the four justices who joined in the majority opinion, the entire deliberative process and the travel records should have been open to the public.

Justice Riley dissented, saying that the majority should have considered the regents’ claim that applying the open meetings laws and FOIA to their search for a university president violates the autonomy vested in the board of regents by the state constitution. The constitution protects the board from legislative oversight or forced compliance with the open meetings laws or FOIA, he said.

Two other justices took the middle ground, agreeing with the majority that the regents violated the open meetings law, but saying that the act does not require the entire presidential selection process to be conducted in public. They would have protected the initial candidate screening process as well as any candidate’s identity until they consented to disclosure or participated in a public interview.

Also, the two justices found that redacting the final destinations on the travel expense forms was not a violation of FOIA because it was necessary to protect the candidates’ identities as employment applicants, information that was personal and intimate to the individuals.

(Booth Newspapers v. The Board of Regents of the University of Michigan; Media Counsel: Jonathan Rowe, Ann Arbor)