A lawsuit involving LSU’s records from its recent presidential search took some dramatic turns last week, with District Judge Janice Clark threatening members of the LSU Board of Supervisors with jail if they didn’t release the documents, then involving sheriff’s deputies in an unfruitful search for records from campus. The LSU Board of Supervisors has now been in contempt for Clark’s court for more than four months for refusing to follow her order that the records be released.
All of this has made for vivid theater, and because The Advocate and another newspaper, The Times-Picayune, are plaintiffs in the suit seeking release of the records, we have a special stake in the outcome.
But we don’t want members of the LSU board to go to jail, and we share the dismay of many others at the melodrama that this case has generated. The soap opera theatrics have tended to obscure what’s really at stake.
LSU owes taxpayers a clear view of how it selects its top leaders. That can’t happen when officials reveal only one candidate for a key post, although it’s obvious that other candidates were considered for the job.
We know that many people embrace as simple common sense the idea that job applications should be kept private. Many of us in the private sector have sought work elsewhere while still on the job. Having our job search become common knowledge to our present employer can be awkward.
But we believe that high-profile jobs in the public sector involve a higher obligation to transparency than work in traditional business. Ultimately, public servants work for the taxpayers who pay their salaries. These taxpayers need assurance that the best person was selected for a job. That assurance cannot exist when searches for top university posts proceed in secret.
We also take issue with the argument that open, transparent searches for higher education posts inevitably threaten the professional standing of those who apply for these positions. Some university leaders get raises and other incentives from their present employers when their candidacies for other positions became known. This happens routinely with popular football coaches, and it also occurred with former LSU chancellor Mark Emmert, whose candidacy for another position got him a better employment package at LSU as an incentive to stay.
There is no statistical evidence that open searches automatically yield candidates of lower quality. Bruce Murphy was recently named the new president of Nicholls State University after an open search process. Many public universities across the United States continue to use open searches for top leaders, often with good outcomes. What’s more, secretive searches have also produced their share of poor results over the years. In recent years, LSU officials used secretive searches to hire Sean O’Keefe as chancellor and John Lombardi as system president. Both leaders left LSU amid discontent about their management styles.
The presence of the LSU case in Clark’s court reminds us that beyond the public policy arguments inspired by this dispute, a basic legal principle endures. That principle, put simply, is that free people should be allowed to see their government at work. It’s an idea worth fighting for, which is we have argued so often and so vigorously that these search records should be released.
We support any reasonable compromise that keeps that ideal intact.