Closed-door meetings near airports might sound like a good plot device for a spy thriller. As a method to pick Louisiana’s top policymaker on higher education, though, they stink.
But that was the clandestine tactic used by the Louisiana Board of Regents as it seeks the next commissioner of higher education. It’s a clear flouting of the board’s obligation to be transparent about its business, and voters should be outraged.
The board, which guides policy for Louisiana’s public institutions of higher education, is looking for a new leader. At least 25 people expressed interest in the job or were suggested for it, but the board declined to release the full list of prospective commissioners. Eventually, after lengthy meetings outside of public view, the board released the names of three finalists for the post.
Last week, the board’s search committee met people interested in the job at a Hilton hotel near the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Using a cynical semantic sleight of hand, the board didn’t describe these prospects as job candidates — a move clearly designed to skirt the state’s transparency laws.
Board officials have kept mum about exactly how many prospective commissioners were brought in at taxpayers’ expense or who they were. Search committee members entered into lengthy executive — or closed — sessions at the Hilton meetings, presumably to allow those interested in the top job to meet board members away from public scrutiny. The Louisiana open meetings law allows executive sessions for a limited number of reasons, but we don’t think those exceptions were meant to cover what apparently amounts to extensive, secret job interviews with people who might be hired for top government posts.
How is the public supposed to know if the best person was selected for the commissioner’s job when taxpayers have no clear idea of who was considered? Shouldn’t taxpayers also know what questions are being asked of potential candidates?
The circumstances regarding this vacancy underscore the urgent need for transparency in selecting the next commissioner. Jim Purcell left the job in March after repeatedly clashing with Gov. Bobby Jindal over education policy. Those tensions unfolded during a troubled time for higher ed funding — a crisis that’s yet unresolved.
Much is at stake as the Board of Regents searches for its next commissioner. That’s why the Board of Regents should take special care to include citizens in the selection process rather than marginalizing them.
If courting prospects at an airport hotel while nobody’s looking sounds sleazy, there’s a good reason. It is.