SALT LAKE CITY — As the Utah System of Higher Education embarks on a search for the next president of the University of Utah, state lawmakers are considering changes to the presidential search process that would render it less transparent.

The House Education Committee voted unanimously Tuesday in support of HB318, sending it to the full House for its consideration.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, would do away with the current process of revealing the names of three finalists for the presidencies of Utah’s public colleges and universities.

For much of the past two decades, Utah higher education officials have announced the names of finalists for those positions. Typically, candidates visit the campus, meet with various constituencies and undergo interviews prior to the selection of the president by the Utah Board of Higher Education.

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins moving on after 3 years

That practice is “problematic” for candidates because it places them in “a compromising position with the current status of their employment,” Ballard said.

HB318 would require making public only the sole finalist’s name.

Salt Lake media and First Amendment attorney Jeff Hunt described HB318 as “deeply troubling.”

“It would eliminate any meaningful public input and oversight of the selection process for university presidents in Utah. These are positions of significant public responsibility and trust. People who apply for them should not expect to keep their names secret, particularly when they make the semifinalist cut,” he said.

Candidates for other high-level public positions such as judges, school superintendents, and city managers are all subject to public scrutiny, he said.

“Why would we want to treat university presidents differently? It would be a huge step backward for transparency and accountability at our public universities and colleges,” Hunt said.

According to Inside Higher Education, many states have made changes because executive search firms’ policies require secret searches. 

Judith Wilde, professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said there has been no research to support the position that confidential searches result in better outcomes.

“The secret search is a recent phenomenon, really seen only in the past five to 10 years — at most — so we weren’t looking for them,” Wilde told Inside Higher Education.

“I will say that what little we’ve seen, we see no reason to believe that this leads to better presidents. Think of this — until just recently, all presidential searches were open. To state that secret searches yield better presidents is to imply that all previous presidents were not good. That just doesn’t make sense,” she said.

In an interview Tuesday, Wilde told the Deseret News that some university presidents even receive pay raises from their current governing boards once it becomes public that they have been identified as finalists for other presidencies or they have been offered higher-paying jobs.

In 2019, Montana’s Board of Regents granted Montana State University President Waded Cruzado a $150,000 pay raise — a 49% hike in salary — to retain her after she received an offer for a higher-paying job.

Executive search firms typically do not name finalists for presidential jobs because it is confidential, but Wilde said the research she has conducted with James Finkelstein, professor emeritus of public policy at the Schar School, has found no empirical evidence that public processes harm candidates.

Some are hired and they presumably receive a higher salary and more substantial benefits. Others, after testing the waters, learn they are happy where they are at.

Still others, like Cruzado, who didn’t seek the position and was instead recruited, revealed to her governing board that she was a finalist. The regents significantly raised her salary to keep her.

The proposal to change Utah’s presidential search process comes as a national search has been launched for the next president of the University of Utah. President Ruth V. Watkins announced in January that she plans to step down in April. An interim president is expected to be named prior to her departure.

Watkins, who was selected the 16th president of the university in 2018, and is its first female leader, will direct Strada Education Network’s national research, philanthropy, policy and thought leadership.

Utah Board of Higher Education Chairman Harris H. Simmons and university board of trustees Chairman Christian Gardner are leading the search committee. The committee includes higher education board members, trustees and university faculty, staff, students, administration, alumni and community members.

HB318 also would authorize public colleges and universities to form nonprofit corporations or foundations within the institution’s role and mission.

Geoff Landward, deputy commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, said many degree-granting institutions have nonprofit foundations used for research and fundraising.

When Utah merged its 16 public universities and colleges — degree-granting and technical — under one system following a statutory change approved by lawmakers in 2020, “we also noticed that a couple of our technical colleges have similar foundations, and they made some inquiries about whether or not they needed specific statutory authority like some of our degree-granting institutions have,” Landward said.

It was unclear if that was necessary “but as an abundance of caution, we decided to put that in there so there’s no question,” said Landward, who is also general counsel to the Utah Board of Higher Education, the governing body over the 16 institutions.

Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, said HB318 proposes “significant changes” to state statutes over colleges and universities forming nonprofit corporations and foundations, which can receive and administer legislative appropriations, government grants, private contracts or private gifts.

“I know that in my personal business, I often compete with nonprofits that are established by the state. I’m concerned about having government-funded competition of private institutions, which is quite possible with how this section of code is written,” Robertson said.

No one from the public spoke in favor or against the bill.