Looking Back: University presidential searches meet Michigan Open Meetings Act

In 1980, Oakland University’s presidential search committee interviewed six candidates in secret closed sessions. Following the end of Donald O’Dowd’s nine-year term as president, George Matthews had been appointed interim president.

After receiving an anonymous tip about the meetings, Oakland Sail went to the hotel where the closed sessions were being held.

Five members of the OU Board of Trustees, six staff members and one student representative took part in the interviews.

Laszlo Hetenyi, dean of the School of Performing Arts, told reporters: “Who said we’re interviewing? We’re just having conferences. I’m making absolutely no comment.”

Despite Hetenyi’s comment, one room attendant at the hotel said, “What they’re talking about must be important because when I walked in, they quit talking.”

The first candidate for the job was escorted to the elevators just before 10 a.m. by Hetenyi and Tom Kirchner, assistant to the dean of Performing Arts. 

Oakland Sail reporters questioned him, and he responded that his name was William Jones.

There was no one named William Jones registered at the hotel, according to desk attendants.

Just after 10 a.m., a hotel manager approached the Sail reporters and told them someone had complained about them taking photos. The manager told them they had to cease photography or be kicked out of the hotel.

An hour after that, the hotel manager the told the reporters they would have to leave because of the threat of vandalism if non-guests were allowed to wander the halls of the hotel.

The second presidential candidate, Gary Schuster, walked past the Sail reporters at about 11 a.m.

Kirchner told the Sail reporters, “I’m not supposed to talk to you. I’m sorry.”

He added that his boss told him he was not allowed to talk to them. Around 3 p.m., Richard Headlee, chairman of the OU Board of Trustees, finally approached the reporters.

“We have interviewed four candidates and will be interviewing two more today,” Headlee said. “We are just trying to get acquainted, and give the committee a chance to get to know them.”

Sound familiar? The same thing happened with the committee in the mid-’90s. Sandra Packard resigned from the presidency in January 1995, and Gary Russi stepped in as interim president.

The board held a nationwide search for a new president, but terminated it after The Oakland Press filed a lawsuit in Oakland County Circuit Court in 1995 for a violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

The Oakland Press won the lawsuit and was awarded more than $40,000 in legal fees, which the newspaper used to create a scholarship for journalism students at OU. Judge Gene Schnelz ruled that presidential searches were to be made public under the Open Meetings Act.

The search was cancelled, and the committee dissolved. The university unsuccessfully appealed the decision, and Russi remained the interim president until June 1996, when he was hired as president with an annual salary of $150,000. 

OU continues its search for the next president, who will be hired before President George Hynd’s contract expires in August

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