State universities hiding insider hires from public

In a reversal of longstanding practice, Iowa's three state universities now refuse to reveal names of employees hired without open job searches, Vanessa Miller reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on August 20.

The University of Iowa informed Miller in July that its Office of General Counsel, in consultation with the Iowa Board of Regents staff, "has determined that search waiver records are confidential personnel records [...]." Staff for Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa subsequently declined to provide records related to employees hired without following the normal guidelines for public searches (such as advertising the position, forming a search committee, and interviewing candidates).

For years, Miller has periodically requested and received documents showing who was hired at each state university without a formal job search.

The about-face happened soon after former University of Iowa President's Bruce Harreld's departure, suggesting the university may be trying to conceal one or more cushy jobs Harreld secured for cronies on his way out.

Miller has filed a complaint against the University of Iowa and the Board of Regents with the Iowa Public Information Board, which is charged with enforcing Iowa's open records and open meetings laws. More often than not, that board defers to government bodies that have withheld records.

When it considers this case, board members should take note of language Iowa lawmakers added to the state's open records law 37 years ago. That passage stipulates that when resolving disputes over releasing records, "the district court shall take into account the policy of this chapter that free and open examination of public records is generally in the public interest even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others."

It's worrying to see the University of Iowa backsliding on transparency so early in the tenure of new President Barbara Wilson, who started working in Iowa City in mid-July. Wilson should not spend any of her political capital on keeping potentially sketchy hires secret. If the university had valid reasons to bypass open searches in order to "promote and retain talented people," as officials assert, let the public see who benefited from the practice. We can draw our own conclusions.

Iowa Freedom of Information Council executive director Randy Evans told Miller,

Without access to the search waivers and written justification for hires that bypass affirmative action and equal opportunity policies, “The university invites public distrust of the UI's commitment to diversity and inclusion in its hiring decisions,” he said.

“The UI's own policies say waivers should be granted only with ‘appropriate justification,’” Evans said. “But without access to these documents, the media and the public are deprived of the information that would allow them to assess whether certain hiring decisions do, or do not, meet this ‘appropriate justification’ test.”

Wilson's administration already fumbled once when the university disregarded the concepts of free speech and academic freedom in its initial guidance for faculty on discussing COVID-19 vaccinations and face coverings. The provost's office revised that policy after an outcry from free speech advocates.

Under Harreld's leadership, the university fought subpoenas from State Auditor Rob Sand all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court, which unanimously held in April that the Board of Regents could not withhold from state auditors details about a billion-dollar, 50-year deal to lease the university’s utility system to a public-private partnership.

Top photograph taken by Eduardo Medrano on September 14, 2018, featuring the old state capitol building and part of the University of Iowa campus, available via Shutterstock.

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