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Other views: On open records and higher-ed executive hires

Back in 2009, North Dakota lawmakers considered a bill to keep secret the names of state college president applicants until semifinalists are named.

The bill got through the Senate Education Committee by a 4-1 vote and went on to pass the full Senate. Then it died in the House, but by a not-outrageous margin of 56-37.

All of which is a lead-in to this:

If supporters still think the change is a good idea, they should consider introducing it again.

In fact, they might even think about expanding it in a limited but strategic way.

That expansion would keep secret the first round of applicants for head coaching positions, too.

By doing so, the bill’s boosters could pick up the support of college sports fans around the state, including those in the Legislature.

And if the public’s interest in coaching hires in Grand Forks and Fargo is any indication, that might be enough to put the bill over the top.

Both the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University have been in the hunt for head football coaches over the past few weeks. NDSU made its hire internally. The move helped the university skirt a host of open-records and hiring-procedure duties, many of which kick in when officials decide to take applications from outside the institution.

That’s exactly what has happened at UND, where the university released — and the Grand Forks Herald published — the list of all 75 or so applicants to be the next head football coach.

But “a few sports agents from firms representing potential coaching applicants have contacted the Herald to say these laws are limiting the potential pool of applicants,” Herald sports writer Tom Miller reported.

“Some coaches don’t want to insult their current employer by having their name publicly attached to an opening.”

Herald Sports Editor Wayne Nelson put it this way: As a result of both the open records law and the universities’ complicated hiring procedures, “It’s becoming clear that hiring high-profile coaches in North Dakota is more difficult than in other states.”

In 2008, then-UND President Charles Kupchella made the same argument about presidential searches, saying “I believe our open records and meetings laws served to curtail the number of candidates.”

For example, “a search for the president of a university of UND’s stature should have produced more than 100 expressions of interest, and among these should have been at least a dozen sitting presidents,” Kupchella wrote.

Instead, there were “no sitting presidents in the (most recent) pool and relatively few provosts. …

“While openness is generally a good thing, our open records and open meetings laws go too far,” Kupchella concluded.

“We should make them more rational.”

Here’s another change that could boost the bill’s prospects: Evidence. In 2009, then-Chancellor Bill Goetz “said he could not name any potential applicant who chose not apply for any of the positions because of the state’s open records law,” the Bismarck Tribune reported.

Could such “potential applicants” be found and persuaded to testify? Would sports agents and presidential-search consultants also be willing to talk about the law’s effects?

“Open records are important in North Dakota — almost a sacred trust,” Forum Communications editorialized in 2009.

“But reasonable exceptions are in law now (juvenile court proceedings, proprietary business information, certain personnel files and lawyer-public client data, to name a few).” Likewise, the benefits of a college presidential search exception would outweigh the costs, the editorial concluded.

Supporters should consider giving the proposal another try.

The Grand Forks Herald’s Editorial Board formed this opinion.

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