KOTZEBUE—We are not making this up. The UA President’s Office and the Board of Regents for days have been refusing to release the names of the six finalists for the position of president, even though five of the six names have been confirmed and published in Alaska journals.
The six candidates are being interviewed this weekend by the UA Board of Regents in a process shrouded in secrecy, even though the cat’s out of the bag.
The Alaska Budget Report, a distinguished Juneau-based newsletter, revealed UA presidential candidates’ names Thursday despite UA Statewide’s best efforts to keep the names secret. ABR not only obtained the names of five of the six finalists for UA Statewide president but contacted them for comment. The candidates include four men from Alaska and one woman from the Lower 48:
Gary Stevens, 68, State Senate President and retired UA history professor
Sally Johnstone, 60, VP for Academic Affairs, Winona State University in Minnesota
Patrick Gamble, 65, Alaska Railroad Corp. President/CEO
Jim Johnsen, 52, a Senior VP for Doyon, Ltd. and former aide to Mark Hamilton
John Pugh, 64, UAS Chancellor since 1999
Mark Hamilton, UA’s current statewide president, is retiring later this year. He joined the University of Alaska in 1998 after 31 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a major general.
Ironically, while the candidates themselves have acknowledged that they are, in fact, in the running for UA’s top executive position, UA Statewide was still refusing to release the names on Saturday afternoon.
“I can tell you that a Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter contacted us to ask for the (ABR) story with the names,” ABR publisher/editor Rebecca Braun wrote in a Saturday email to us.
After her publication published the names, Braun said, she figured UA Statewide would give them up since Braun’s publication had already published them Thursday.
“But the (News-Miner) reporter said no, they’re still holding the names until Sunday,” Braun said, although the News-Miner did manage to publish some of the finalists’ names in its Sunday issue, according to its website.
In a related matter, UA Statewide is stalling on a request from the Alaska Budget Report for the names and resumes of all 32 candidates who applied for the job.
Gregg Erickson, who with spouse Judy shared the 2009 Alaska Press Club Howard Rock/Tom Snapp First Amendment Award, sent a formal request last Wednesday to Kate Ripley, UA Statewide’s spokesperson, to obey the law and release the names of the candidates for UA’s top job.
“By law they have ten days to respond (and longer if they say it’s necessary),” wrote Braun in her email. “In (Ripley’s) response she did say she would forward the request to the regents, and their lawyer would look at it.”
In other words, the university has not contested the public’s right to the information. They have not asserted any exemption. They simply don’t care to comply with the law for the time being.
In an earlier post to the list-serv of UAF’s College of Rural and Community Development, we reported that both UA Statewide and the Board of Regents might be violating state law by withholding candidates’ names. But because Statewide received the request on Wednesday, they are technically not in violation of the law for few more days, according to Braun.
Statewide may be complying with the letter of the law, but one might question its observance of the spirit of the law. And we wonder if this sort of behavior is appropriate for a university. If the law says the university must comply in 10 days in any case, why not release the names as soon as properly requested by professional journalists?
What does this say about our current university leaders and their understanding of a university’s essential mission? Isn’t a university in the business of promulgating information to the public, rather than sequestering it? Isn’t a culture of secrecy--however prevalent that may be in government and industry--utterly out of place in the university?
Neither the regents nor Statewide should be afraid of the critical analysis that might follow disclosure of their decision-making; after all, that’s an activity fundamental to higher education. Of all of Alaska’s public institutions, the University of Alaska should be setting an unimpeachable example by recognizing the public’s right to public information.
Comically, the University’s present leadership continues the embargo even when there’s no secret left to keep.
In Alaska, secrecy in state government has been a bipartisan effort for decades. Whether a Democrat or a Republican occupies the governor’s mansion (or doesn’t live there much at all), Alaska governors from Wally Hickel to Tony Knowles to Frank Murkowski have actively blockaded access to public records, according to Gregg Erickson, who founded the Alaska Report and is a regular columnist for the Anchorage Daily News.
Erickson has documented governors’ secrecy habits ever since founding his ABR publication in 1991, but he reserves his harshest criticism for former Gov. [NAME REDACTED ON ORDER OF UA ATTORNEY], dubbing [HER/HIM] “the most secretive governor in Alaska’s history.”
“When it comes to letting the public know what [HER/HIS] government is doing, [REDACTED] is either a cynical hypocrite or delusional,” Erickson wrote in the Anchorage Daily News some time in the past year. We cannot tell you exactly when, because UA attorney Mike Hostina in Hamilton’s office has warned us that we may face disciplinary action if we write anything critical of a candidate or even a potential candidate for office. (In a recent trip to the Lower 48, a politician from Alaska whose name we dare not speak acknowledged [HER/HIS] potential candidacy for elected office.)
Meanwhile, Hamilton’s office has stalled on granting “permission” for us to write commentary as part of our jobs for more than a month, even though it’s common practice for university professors, including Alaskans, to publish commentary as part of their official university duties.
Even though we are tenured professors with faculty appointments in journalism, we can’t write about former Gov. [REDACTED] unless we first obtain permission from Mark Hamilton’s office. But that’s not the only hurdle. Hamilton’s office has indicated we need to clear our commentary with Alaska’s attorney general.
Come to think of it, UA obviously has more serious problems with stifling free inquiry than the present fiasco over the candidates’ names.
Susan B. Andrews and John Creed are humanities/journalism professors at Chukchi College, a Kotzebue branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Their forthcoming book from Epicenter Press is called “Purely Alaska: Authentic Voices From the Far North.” For excerpts, visit voicesofalaska.com when their website launches in March.