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Another secrecy provision has been slipped into the state budget with virtually no discussion or public input.

Take it out.

The University of Wisconsin System doesn’t need or deserve an exemption from the state’s open government laws when hiring a chancellor, football coach or other top people on campuses across the state.

The public has a right to see a list of finalists for key public positions before an applicant is hired. In the past, that has meant at least five names, or every name if fewer than five people apply.

Public scrutiny of final candidates helps universities avoid bad hires and build support for the best person.

The Legislature’s budget committee just added the policy change to the state’s two-year spending plan, where it doesn’t belong. If it’s such a good idea to hide major hiring decisions from the public, then the proposal should stand on its own merits as a separate bill, with public hearings and specific votes by lawmakers.

Lumping this change into the state budget is clearly an attempt to sneak it past the public without accountability for the results.

That didn’t work before. Earlier this spring, the Joint Finance Committee wisely removed a provision from Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal that would have shielded university research from the public. It was one of 14 policy items the committee removed from the governor’s spending plan.

Now it’s the committee that’s slipping policy into the budget. If the committee doesn’t reverse course and strike this provision from the budget, then the full Assembly or Senate should.

Decades ago, when UW-Madison was in the process of hiring Donna Shalala to be its chancellor, the State Journal and other newspapers went to court to get the names of applicants for the job. Eventually, the media and university agreed that at least five names of the most qualified applicants would become public information.

Now state lawmakers want to backtrack on that sensible compromise. UW System would still release the names of candidates for campus chancellors and vice chancellors, as well as UW System president and vice presidents. But instead of five names, only an applicant “seriously considered” for a job and whose “name is submitted for final consideration to an authority for appointment” would have to be released.

How many is that? It’s vague and, in practice, would likely result in campus officials releasing fewer names — maybe only one.

The budget motion also would allow public universities to avoid releasing any names of finalists for a slew of other university leadership positions, including top administrators and coaches.

This change shouldn’t be rushed and definitely needs more explanation and analysis. It was included in the budget as part of a larger package of changes Republican lawmakers are seeking for UW System. The goal, lawmakers say, is to provide universities more freedom from state bureaucracy to help them absorb a $250 million cut in state aid.

But streamlining university functions shouldn’t require more secrecy. Our universities are public institutions, so the public gets to know what they’re doing — including which finalists they’re considering for major jobs.


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