Regents fast-track leadership

As 6 colleges search for presidents, new rule cuts public review to 5 days

With Georgia’s university system looking to hire six college presidents, students and taxpayers will have less time to review and share opinions about finalists for those posts under a change in state law.

Georgia’s Open Records Act requires a 14-day waiting period between when state agencies and local governments name finalists and vote on an official hire. The time gives the public an opportunity to learn about the finalists and voice any concerns or comments.

But when lawmakers overhauled the act during this year’s legislative session they created a special provision requested by the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public universities. The regents now need to give the public only five days to review finalists. No other group received this exemption.

Lawmakers approved the new rule over the objections of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, which testified against it. Hiring college presidents is of keen interest to the public, but the new law makes the process less transparent, said Hollie Manheimer, the group’s executive director.

“The idea behind the Open Records Act is to allow public oversight of public officials and 14 days was barely enough time for the public to become informed about these very important positions and those who aspire to fill them,” Manheimer said.

The change comes as the regents are to begin searching for a new president at the University of Georgia, the state’s flagship school and largest institution with nearly 35,000 students. The University System of Georgia has five other presidential vacancies, including Georgia Perimeter College.

Regents Chairman Ben Tarbutton said the number of openings didn’t prompt the new rule.

The previous 14-day review period put the system at a disadvantage because some candidates were uncomfortable with extensive public vetting and withdrew their names, Tarbutton said.

The regents declined to provide any specific examples of candidates who had withdrawn.

Other states have a smaller window or none at all, Tarbutton said.

The change guarantees the public still can learn about the finalists while putting the system in a better position to attract world-class leaders, he said.

“We’ve wanted this for a while because it is what’s best for the system,” Tarbutton said. “Strong campus presidents are good for the entire state.”

The Attorney General’s Office added the provision to the bill after the regents and other groups agreed to the change, spokeswoman Lauren Kane said. Manheimer said it was added at the last minute.

The exemption for the regents was one of the compromises reached during extensive negotiations on the rewrite of the law. Overall, the sweeping revisions to the law strengthen public access to records and documents. The changes clarify responsibilities for public agencies and increase penalties for those who break the law. The revised law also reduces the cost to copy public documents and records.

UGA junior Haleigh Hoffman said she doubted college students would be able to review finalists for president in just five days. Students already struggle to balance classes, studying and work, she said.

“We won’t have enough time to make an impact on the decision,” Hoffman said. “I know I don’t want a president to come in and make changes I don’t approve of.”

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