The hottest item on the University of Hawaii Board of Regents’ agenda Thursday will be discussed behind closed doors.

Planned talks about the university’s presidency are scheduled for executive session — the part of the meeting when members of the public are asked to leave the room.

“How do they justify this?” said Beverly Keever, a UH professor emerita and open government advocate. “It’s a slap in the face … When the public and the Legislature is demanding more transparency to build public trust, they should bend over backwards to be more open — especially about how they’re going to be looking for a new president.”

Last Monday, UH President M.R.C. Greenwood abruptly announced that she’ll be resigning in September, two years before her contract expires. A press release sent out that day stated that the 15-member Board of Regents, which has jurisdiction over university personnel, is going to be discussing plans for her replacement in the coming months. (Three newly elected board members start their posts in July.)

There’s already been a lot of interest in Greenwood’s successor. But if the Board of Regents’ closed-door discussion on Thursday is any indication, the public will have little access to information about those prospects.

To justify putting the presidential discussion in executive session, the regents cite a Hawaii Revised Statutes section that details exceptions to the state’s open meetings law, also known as the Sunshine Law.

The section states that a board may close a meeting to the public when considering “the hire, evaluation, dismissal, or discipline of an officer or employee or of charges brought against the officer or employee, where consideration of matters affecting privacy will be involved.”

An attorney at the state Office of Information Practices, which administers the open government laws, told Civil Beat that the Board of Regents would indeed be breaking the law on Thursday if it doesn’t plan on discussing specific candidates for Greenwood’s replacement.

“There’s only an issue of privacy if there are specific individuals that they’ll be talking about,” said OIP attorney Lorna Aratani. “They can’t just talk generally about what they can do to hire.”

Aratani added, however, that the exception could be invoked even if the board simply suspects that discussion of specific individuals might come up. Mere name references or even descriptions that clearly identify an individual, she said, would also qualify for the privacy exception.

UH spokeswoman Lynne Waters said that the board will be discussing specific individuals.

But considering it’s been just days since Greenwood’s announcement, critics are questioning whether that’s really the case.

“The section that they quote to justify a closed-door meeting is not applicable here,” Keever said. “Greenwood is gone. What other individuals specifically are they talking about? Their big discussion is what kind of criteria do you have and what do you need to get a new president.”

The Board of Regents could be gambling with government transparency when it should instead be striving to recover public confidence in the university, Keever said.

Widespread concern over governance and lines of authority at the university — a discussion sparked in part by last year’s failed Stevie Wonder concert — prompted a series of bills this session aimed at making the Board of Regents more accountable to the public.

Among the measures were Senate Bill 1385 and House Bill 1070, both of which would’ve required board members to get annual training in the state’s open government policies, including the Sunshine Law.

Both proposals died. But the conversations triggered by this year’s legislation — and growing criticism of both spiraling tuition rates and Greenwood’s salary, which according to The Chronicle of Higher Education is above the median total compensation for public-college leaders — would suggest that the public is expecting the board to be as open as possible.

“We absolutely want to see the utmost transparency of any of these decisions,” said Chris Conybeare, president of the Media Council Hawaii. “There doesn’t seem to be any reason for an executive session at this point.”

Conybeare said that the Media Council expects the Board of Regents to avoid executive session as much as possible.

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