The hiring of a new athletic director for the University of Wisconsin is something the school has to get right, Chancellor Rebecca Blank said.
Examples of the ways UW could get it wrong are prominent.
The maligned process to hire a new UW System president last year ended in embarrassing fashion when the only named finalist for the position withdrew just before his appointment was due to be considered.
Fellow Big Ten Conference school Northwestern appointed a new athletic director earlier this month only to have public outcry over claims he dismissed a school cheerleader’s allegation of being groped by fans lead him to resign.
UW is more than six weeks into its search for Barry Alvarez’s successor to lead the athletic department, an enterprise with an annual budget of more than $130 million. The school has been silent on whether any lessons from the failed presidential search were learned, but it is operating with a similar degree of secrecy.
Blank formed a nine-member search committee when the job opening was posted April 7. That group is considering candidates in order to make recommendations to Blank but likely is only one part of the procedure.
Executive search firms have been contracted by UW to advise similar committees and perform background checks in the past. The UW System paid more than $214,000 to a search company in the 2020 effort to hire a new president, though UW won’t say if one is being used to help vet athletic director candidates.
The search for a president crumbled after former University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen, named the only finalist, withdrew from consideration hours before the committee was due to make a hiring recommendation to the Board of Regents.
UW System officials were chided for not including any faculty members or academic staff as well as for the single-finalist stance that reduced transparency in determining who the top candidates were.
Northwestern hired search firm DHR International, which has former Badgers athletic director Pat Richter as a consultant, to conduct its search for a new athletic director. But the final decision from a list of candidates was with school President Morton Schapiro, who promoted deputy Mike Polisky despite him being named in a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Schapiro told WTTW-TV after Polisky resigned he “realized that the optics were going to be tough” with the hire, but said Polisky had been cleared by an independent investigation.
It’s unclear how involved Blank has been in the athletic director search process because UW isn’t saying.
John Lucas, the assistant vice chancellor for university communications, declined to answer questions on whether Blank participated in the first three known meetings of the search committee.
UW denied the Wisconsin State Journal’s public records request for minutes of the April 14, April 21 and May 4 meetings of the search committee established by Blank. The school argued there’s a greater public interest in it keeping a competitive position in job searches than in it making information public.
“Should materials regarding a search that is not completed be required to be released to the public, the foreseeable result would be an inability to attract applicants for athletic department searches specifically and university positions in general,” public records custodian Lisa Hull wrote in response to the State Journal’s request.
Open records advocates questioned UW’s reasoning, which the State Journal has appealed.
“The UW has offered exactly no evidence in support of its claim that releasing any part of records that deal with the search for an important public position would wreak havoc on its process because future applicants would refuse to apply if their names might become known,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “That’s because it’s a bogus claim.”
Madison attorney Christa Westerberg said UW could have redacted names of candidates from the minutes. Applicants are given anonymity if they request it in writing.
“Setting aside whether that is a valid concern, there is a strong public interest in understanding the manner in which the search is conducted,” Westerberg said. “The minutes should reflect that. This, of course, is in addition to the presumption in favor of access in the text of the open records law.”
Wisconsin’s public records law says the “denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”
The search committee appointed by Blank was scheduled to do all of its discussions in closed session according to agendas. Minutes could reveal, however, whether Blank is in attendance as the work continues or is waiting for recommendations.
She didn’t appear to be a participant Wednesday. A meeting held via online video conferencing started in open session as required by law. The nine members of the committee quickly voted to move into closed session to discuss candidates. The group includes the two most recent Athletic Board chairs, Pete Miller and Laurel Rice; Badgers football coach Paul Chryst; softball coach Yvette Healy; former UW football player Jeff Mack; former UW basketball player and assistant coach Alando Tucker; alums Elzie Higginbottom and Ted Kellner; and lightweight rower Eden Rane.
The only other person present when the closed session began was Adam Kindschy, a special assistant in the office of the chancellor.
UW’s desire to keep details on the search for Alvarez’s successor from the public has been evident from the beginning. Miller, chair of both the Athletic Board and the search committee, said when the process was starting there would not be updates released.
Some clues on the nature of Blank’s concern for secrecy emerged in her answer to a question about the search in a newsmakers interview with WisPolitics.com and the Milwaukee Press Club on April 22.
“In the world of athletics, if you’re at another school and it is known you are looking at a job elsewhere you can get fired,” she said. “I’m not destroying anyone’s career in the process of this search.”
Blank didn’t provide evidence or background for that claim, and Lucas wouldn’t get into the issue further.
Blank, who was part of the search committee for the System president opening, faced backlash from public records advocates earlier this year for emails in which she suggested Big Ten presidents and chancellors should use a private messaging portal to avoid the public release of their communication.
She apologized in a statement to the State Journal and said she didn’t intend to skirt public records responsibilities. The Washington Post first reported on the efforts to shield discussion last fall by Big Ten presidents and chancellors comparing notes about COVID-19 on their campuses.
The need for secrecy in the athletic director search is overblown, Lueders said.
“Anybody who is that much of a coward does not deserve a job like this,” he said.
Richter said there’s generally no surprise when a deputy or an athletic director from a smaller program makes a run at a position like the one that’s open with the Badgers.
Richter, who has consulted on college athletics job searches, said it’s when an athletic director at a Power Five school seeks to move to another without informing school administrators that problems arise.
“Not that they say they’re going to be fired every time, but it may just impair the relationship that they had,” Richter said.
UW is undergoing a search for a new athletic director for the first time since Richter was hired in 1989. When Richter announced his retirement in 2003, then-Chancellor John Wiley immediately appointed Alvarez his successor effective in 2004 and said he was the only candidate.
Secrecy was a high priority 32 years ago, too, even after Richter was hired. Then-Chancellor Donna Shalala and UW refused to turn over a list of applicants, arguing their names weren’t subject to release under public records laws. The Milwaukee Journal successfully sued to compel release.
In 2015, the Legislature exempted most UW System jobs from the state law that requires having to disclose the finalists for public positions.
“There was no proof then, either, that this is necessary,” Lueders said. “The UW just happens to like secrecy.”
Check out the State Journal's complete coverage of Barry Alvarez's retirement announcement
The Wisconsin State Journal is providing our readers with comprehensive coverage of Barry Alvarez's retirement from his position as athletic director at the University of Wisconsin.
From a look back at Alvarez's football coaching days and the changes the department has made since he came to Madison in 1990, to an examination of what lies ahead in the university's search for a successor, we have you covered with all the latest updates and in-depth analysis of this landmark moment in Badgers history.
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A request for meeting minutes was denied, and sessions are generally closed.