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University presidential search must be open to the public

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University presidential search must be open to the public11/04/96 MICHIGAN--A mid-October ruling by a state trial court in Ann Arbor…

University presidential search must be open to the public

11/04/96

MICHIGAN–A mid-October ruling by a state trial court in Ann Arbor prevents the University of Michigan Board of Regents from conducting the search for a new president in secret.

Washtenaw County Judge Melinda Morris ordered the board to cancel scheduled secret sessions and private interviews with candidates for the position of university president. The preliminary injunction came in a lawsuit filed by three newspapers, the Detroit Free Press, The Ann Arbor News and The Detroit News. The newspapers argued that the closed sessions would violate Michigan’s Open Meetings Act.

Morris agreed and also found that the board’s actions violated a 1993 Michigan Supreme Court decision involving an earlier presidential search, which held that the university could not conduct such searches in secret.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in September 1993 in a case brought by the Detroit Free Press and The Ann Arbor News that a 1987 search for president of the University of Michigan violated state open meetings and freedom of information laws. The high court reasoned that the legislature intended for the public to observe the decisionmaking process of government bodies, including the governing boards of public educational institutions, in order to promote governmental accountability. The court permanently enjoined the board of regents from conducting future presidential searches in private.

Even so, this year the board of regents conducted much of the initial stages of the search for the 12th university president in secret. Walt Harrison, vice-president for university relations justified the board’s actions stating “this is the most public search ever at an institution in Michigan.” Moreover, Harrison was quoted in The Detroit News as saying that the current lawsuit was “quibbling over technicalities and hampering the university in getting the best possible leader.”

Morris ordered the board to refrain from conducting closed-door interviews and severely limited private board sessions, ruling that only information that candidates requested be kept confidential can be discussed in closed sessions. (Detroit Free Press v. The Board of Regents of the University of Michigan; Media Counsel: Jonathan Rowe, Ann Arbor)