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Stray Thoughts

More secrecy unwise in schools’ hiring decisions

8/23/2021

Iowa’s three state universities made a U-turn this summer, and they now are headed down the road toward secrecy with some hiring decisions.

The about-face should trouble taxpayers of this state. It also should bother members of the Legislature, who have expressed concern in recent years that the universities are out of touch with the people of Iowa.

First, some background about this change:

For many years, the universities have followed affirmative action hiring practices. These are intended to ensure a diverse array of qualified candidates is considered when jobs are filled in the administrative ranks, on the faculty, and for professional and scientific positions.

Among the requirements is advertising job openings. This allows interested people to apply, especially existing employees, women, and racial or ethnic minorities.

The affirmative action policies do permit university administrators to seek waivers under certain limited circumstances. One of the checks on potential abuse has been the waiver documents being available for public review.

But now the three universities say the public no longer is able to see these to find out which jobs are being filled with waivers and which employees are being hired without a competitive search process.

The policy change was disclosed last week by the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Officials at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa say their lawyers now believe the waivers are part of employees’ confidential personnel files. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the nonprofit organization I lead, disagrees.

Iowa’s public records law already makes deeply personal information in employee files confidential — including the home address, date of birth, Social Security number, marital status, dependents and medical information.

But the law requires certain other personal information to be made public. That includes the person’s employment contract, salary, amount of vacation time and sick leave, insurance benefits, any deferred compensation the person accrues, and any severance package the employee receives when leaving a government job.

In addition, the law requires bosses to make public the “documented reasons and rationale” when a government worker is terminated, demoted or resigns under threat of being fired.

The Iowa FOI Council believes the employee’s desire for privacy does not outweigh the public’s desire to know when and why university administrators fill certain jobs without publicizing the opening and without taking applications.

The affirmative action policies were written for important reasons — including finding the best people for our state universities and avoiding hiring decisions based on cronyism. Without the public having access to the search waivers and written justification for bypassing affirmative action policies, the universities invite public skepticism of their commitment to diversity and inclusion when filling jobs.

The UI’s policies say waivers should be granted only with “appropriate justification.” But without access to the waiver documents, the media and citizens are deprived of the information that would allow them to assess whether certain hiring decisions do, or do not, meet this threshold.

The universities’ policies allow waivers under limited circumstances. One frequently cited reason is filling a job when a candidate’s qualifications and expertise surpass what any other applicant would have.

The Gazette has done important reporting in recent years on the universities’ use of these waivers. The newspaper found that in one two-year period, the UI and Iowa State hired 319 faculty and staff members without advertising the jobs or conducting formal searches. In contrast, UNI hired one person using a waiver in those years.

Ironically, waiver documents showed the UI bypassed the affirmative action process to hire an associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, the Gazette reported.

The documents also raise questions about the fairness of some hiring decisions. Three former members of the Iowa House and one former member of the U.S. House were hired without advertising the jobs and without public searches. Kraig Paulsen, who was House speaker, and Rep. Jim Kurtenbach were hired by Iowa State. Rep. Dave Jacoby and former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach were hired by the UI.

Margo Foreman, assistant vice president for diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity at Iowa State, told the Gazette in 2016 that university officials need to be ready to justify their decisions to use the waivers.

“The world is watching,” she said. “What I would say to individuals is be able to defend the decisions you make.”

Of course, by keeping the public in the dark about the waivers, university officials will not have to worry about justifying those decisions to the public.

It comes down to this: If it is not an invasion of privacy for citizens to know the reasons and rationale for a government employee being fired, then it certainly should not be considered an invasion of privacy to know why an employee is hired by a university after officials skip the customary hiring process. ♦

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He can be reached at IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.

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