As the Louisiana Board of Regents looks for its next commissioner, the public could be out of the loop while board members decide who gets the job.
The search for a replacement for outgoing Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo is shaping up to be another secretive charade on the taxpayers’ dime, advancing a sad tradition of clandestine deliberations among the leaders of Louisiana’s higher education bureaucracy.
Rallo plans to leave by June, and the board has hired a private search firm to help find his replacement. It’s an important job, since the commissioner of higher education helps set policies for the state’s public colleges and universities.
But a position of public trust won’t be filled with full public oversight. At least that’s what a Regents official suggested during a recent search committee meeting.
Uma Subramanian, the Regents’ deputy commissioner for legal and external affairs, told board members that the initial batch of names of those interested in the post don’t have to be made public. She said the names could be kept secret as long as they’re not formally designated as “applicants,” which would trigger a legal requirement to disclose them.
And so, by outsourcing its work to a private headhunting company at a cost of more than $100,000 to taxpayers, public officials are once again poised to play a cynical semantic game aimed at serving everyone but the citizens who will foot the bill.
We’ve been down this road before. In 2013, LSU officials used the same gimmick to hide the names of those vying to become the university system’s next president. After The Advocate, The Times-Picayune and the editor of The Reveille, LSU’s student newspaper, sued to have the names of applicants released, the courts eventually forced LSU to make public three finalists for the job eventually given to F. King Alexander. But by that time, the decision had long been made, with the public treated as an afterthought.
If citizens don’t know who’s applied for an important public post, they have no guarantee that the best candidate was selected. Higher education officials often argue that an open process discourages applicants who might not want their existing employers to know that they’re looking for another job.
But when then-LSU chancellor Mark Emmert considered a job with the University of South Carolina in 2002, LSU officials kept him in place with a hefty pay raise. A higher education leader in good standing with his board needn’t fear considering opportunities elsewhere. In fact, being seriously considered by a rival institution brings credit to the leader’s skills, making him more marketable.
Louisiana’s next commissioner of higher education will face a system of colleges and universities plagued by huge problems — challenges that will require public support to answer.
That’s all the more reason to give the public a seat at the table as candidates are considered for the job. The Board of Regents should do the right thing and make the names of all the job-seekers public.