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Editorial: UNM shouldn’t fall back into bad pattern of secrecy

Using transparency and the University of New Mexico in a sentence conjures up a list of things like oil and water, salt and pepper, up and down. They don’t have much in common.

Slammed recently by the state attorney general for a “disturbing pattern of concealment and deliberate misrepresentation,” the state’s flagship university has for years had a deep institutional resistance to the notion the public has a right to know about such things as who applies for jobs that pay nice six-figure salaries funded from the public treasury.

UNM argues releasing information such as job applicants hinders its ability to hire the best and brightest who might not want their current boss to know they’re looking for a new gig. But that collides with accountable governance and the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, which wisely says citizens are entitled to the most information possible about the workings of their government – including UNM.

UNM’s history includes two bruising lawsuits in which transparency advocates, including the Journal and the Foundation for Open Government, prevailed, after which the state Supreme Court and the Legislature made it clear that unless lawmakers grant a specific exception, government records are accessible to the public. The university even recognized this by adopting a regents policy a couple of presidents ago that says, “The identity, the job application, and the resume or curriculum vitae of a candidate (for university employment) are public records and are subject to public inspection” in accordance with IPRA.

Fast forward to this year’s search for a new chief legal counsel. UNM said in August it had 36 applicants for the top attorney position, which pays $265,000. At that point UNM had only released the names of its three finalists. In October it released the names of 10 applicants, including those original three, in response to a Journal IPRA request. As for the rest? UNM officials said those names were the property of a search firm the university hired and only 10 could “fairly” be considered applicants “after affirmatively responding upon request that they wished to move forward in the search.” These were the applicants who were interviewed on campus by the search committee.

This is nonsense and doublespeak. First, search firms have a vested interest in secrecy. They can keep a stable of candidates and trot them out for jobs. Further, documents held by a private company on behalf of a government body are public record – regardless of how you define “applicant” or “candidate.” You can’t skirt the law by outsourcing, and you don’t get points for talking the transparency talk while failing to walk the walk. It leaves the impression of concealment and deliberate misrepresentation rather than an acknowledgement UNM is a public university.

And what makes this issue so important right now is the university is in the midst of filling two of its top positions – provost and executive vice president for administration/chief financial officer/chief operating officer. It is using search firms for both. State law says the public should have access to the names of all who apply, and it’s important candidates know this up front.

There are a lot of smart people at UNM, and they want to attract the best candidates. But that shouldn’t be at the expense of transparency, and they shouldn’t be using their talents to circumvent the public’s right to know. If UNM wants to go back to the old days when top officials could hire cronies in secret processes at taxpayer expense and then unveil their choices to an uninformed and unsuspecting public, it will need to convince the Legislature, governor and courts that’s the way things should be done.

Until then, it should comply with the law.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.