If you're applying for a top post at a public university, you can expect a public process to fill that job — though plenty still remains secret.

It's what's happening around the country and it's what the three finalists have found in their bid for president at the University of Utah.

"It does put us in a slightly difficult position," said finalist Michael Young, dean of the George Washington University School of Law. "Things come to a bit of a halt."

That's because there's "uncertainty" among colleagues when people in positions of power are in the running for jobs elsewhere, according to Young.

Loren W. Crabtree and Susan Westerberg Prager, the other two finalists for the U. job, have gone down to the wire in previous searches. Since being named as finalists last week, Young said he and the others have been advised by Utah System of Higher Education officials to limit their conversations with the press.

Crabtree and Prager could not be reached for comment.

"Searches that appear to be open are not as transparent as the public would like them to be," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the Washington-based American Council on Education.

From what Steinbach has heard, Utah's search achieved the "right balance" of a government institution's obligations to the public and its responsibility to bring about the best leadership for the U.

The U. search marks only the fourth time in the 31-year history of the Utah Board of Regents the names of finalists have been released. The school and higher education officials were criticized by local media and university faculty for previously being too secretive in picking the university's president.

When the state went looking for a new commisisoner of higher education last year, the regents made public the list of finalists a week before selecting Richard Kendell for the post.

Kendell's predecessor, Cecelia Foxley, said last October that losing secrecy has the impact of losing "good" candidates. Not so, however, for the U.

"We didn't see that," said James Macfarlane, chairman of the U. Board of Trustees.

Macfarlane sat on a 21-member search committee that included community members, alumni and faculty. The committee was chaired by Utah Board of Regents member James Jardine. Prior to naming the finalists, the committee held several public meetings last fall before considering 147 candidates from 47 states and three foreign countries.

"There was a lot of concern on the committee about releasing the names," Macfarlane said. "To be honest, I think it's been a pretty smooth process."

It's an improvement over the way things used to be, according to Jeff Hunt, a lawyer for the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Hunt long criticized regents for not opening up the process to allow for greater scrutiny of candidates.

"If you shroud the entire process in secrecy from beginning to end, you have a credibility and accountability problem," he said.

The argument that an open process scares off good candidates, Hunt added, doesn't hold up. He said it is a compliment to a university to have a top official considered for a position at another school.

The three finalists had conversations with their administrators and faculty prior to being publicly named in the U. search, thereby minimizing the element of surprise at their respective campuses.

But Macfarlane did say he would change the process to allow the U. Board of Trustees — instead of the regents — to make the final decision on a new president. "It seems like we know more about those candidates than anybody." Some regents, he added, will be playing catch-up on Thursday, the day a new president will be announced.

Young said Utah seems to have struck a "pretty good balance" in its search methods, releasing some information but not too much too early in the process. At places like Vanderbilt and New York University, new presidents have been put in place "under the cover of darkness," he added.

What the Utah system is doing, Young said, is consistent with trends around the country. Utah State University President Kermit Hall and former U. President Bernie Machen were both involved in highly public searches by other institutions.

Machen, whose final interviews were broadcast live on the Internet, went to the University of Florida in January. Just this month Hall was a finalist for the University of Tennessee system's top job, which went to someone else.

Hall was named USU president in 2000 only after private meetings with the regents; finalists were not named. At the time, he said he would not have pursued the position had his name not been kept confidential.

Hall called the University of Tennessee search the most open in the history of higher education. Still, Hall and Steinbach agree that not everything is out in the open these days.

"The perception of openness may not, in fact, comport the spirit of openness," Hall said.

Hunt said he would like to see the regents open up the final interviews to the public. "I don't see any reason why they should be closed." Perhaps the only private conversations at this point, he added, should be the deliberation over who to choose.

As for Young's own standing in this search, having his name out there has actually helped, with "unsolicited" support flowing into Utah on his behalf. "It's really been kind of touching."

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com