Bill to allow more confidentiality for college president candidates awaits governor’s signature

Legislation that would allow more confidentiality for college president candidates has passed the House and Senate and is now on the governor’s desk for signature.

The bill, which includes an automatic repeal in three years, expands an exemption in state law that already allows names and applications of college presidents to be confidential except for “no less than three” finalists selected by a search committee.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam

The change allows a search committee to select “up to three” instead.  The effect is that college search committees now have the option of recommending to a governing board as few as one person as finalist for president. Only the persons recommended as finalists by the search committee have to be made public and their application materials released.

The minimum amount of time between when the finalist or finalists are selected and available to the public, and when the governing board votes on a new president is the same: 15 calendar days.

The legislation updates a 2012 law (§ T.C.A. 49-7-154) that originally created the exemption for application materials that could identify candidates for college president and chancellors.

The change allowing the search committee to select “up to three” finalists does not apply to chancellor positions. It applies to positions at 47 colleges:

  • president of the University of Tennessee system (1);
  • president of locally governed state universities (6);
  • president of the state’s community colleges (13); and
  • president or director of Tennessee colleges of applied technology (27).

This new provision comes with other stipulations:

  • Prior to initiating a president search, the governing board must hold a meeting to establish “the search process, a timeline, and a statement of qualifications for the position.”
  • At least seven calendar days before the governing board votes, it must hold a public forum with the candidate.
  • By Nov. 1, 2020, the Advisory Committee on Open Government must submit a report to the governor, the speakers of the senate and the speaker of the house of representatives “evaluating the impact and effectiveness” of the new provision and “identifying considerations and recommendations relative to its continuation, revision, or expiration.”
  • The new provision is automatically repealed in three years on July 1, 2021, and absent other changes, the law would revert back to its previous status.
State Representative Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville

State Representative Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville

The legislation originated through separate efforts of Gov. Bill Haslam and House Education Administration and Planning Committee Chairman Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville.

Both noted problems with recruiting candidates for president positions at state colleges because candidates feared that their name becoming public could hurt their standing in the current positions.

Brooks also sought to allow candidates for school district superintendents to be confidential for the same reason. Eventually Brooks dropped the school superintendent portion, and modified one of his bills in consultation with Haslam.

He also included portions requested by Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Tennessee Press Association for an assessment report of the exemption’s impact by the Advisory Committee on Open Government, and a repeal in three years. The repeal means that lawmakers would have to pass new legislation to continue the exemption in its new form.

It is unknown how many college president searches might take place in the next three years. But at least one position is likely to be filled under this framework. UT  President Joe DiPetrio is expected to leave when his contract expires in June 2019, which would mean the Board of Trustees for the University of Tennessee will need to seek a new UT president.

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