Against Closed-Door Searches

BY HANK REICHMAN

Over the past several months this blog has posted a number of items about the growing and dangerous trend of conducting searches for top administrators in secret, with no public disclosure of candidates.  The disastrous consequences of such searches have already been witnessed at the Universities of Missouri and Iowa and have generated growing faculty opposition. University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings, who took office today amid widespread student and faculty protests, was recruited behind closed doors by conservative trustees, which prompted strong faculty condemnation.

On November 3, the AAUP issued a Statement on Presidential Searches, which said that “decisions to forgo public campus visits and public forums by finalists violate longstanding principles of shared governance.”  The Statement added:

Although governing boards have the legal responsibility for selection of a president, the process of selection is fundamental in determining which candidate has the most appropriate academic leadership and administrative skills needed to lead the institution. The 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, formulated jointly by the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges states:

Joint effort of a most critical kind must be taken when an institution chooses a new president. The selection of a chief administrative officer should follow upon a cooperative search by the governing board and the faculty, taking into consideration the opinions of others who are appropriately interested. The president should be equally qualified to serve both as the executive officer of the governing board and as the chief academic officer of the institution and the faculty. The president’s dual role requires an ability to interpret to board and faculty the educational views and concepts of institutional government of the other. The president should have the confidence of the board and the faculty.

Now the Nebraska Legislature is debating proposed legislation that would close off meaningful public access to presidential searches in the state’s public universities, leaving faculty, students, and the general public with a single done-deal “finalist.”  This morning Frank LoMonte, an attorney and executive director of the Student Press Law Center, published an excellent op-ed piece in the Omaha World-Herald urging the proposal’s rejection.  He argues that “Before a person is handed a $400,000-a-year state paycheck and the keys to a $1.2 billion budget, the public has a right to know whether the best candidate was chosen or whether superior contenders got passed over.”

When the citizens of a major university campus are handed a pig-in-a-poke president after a closed search, it’s like telling the residents of a 40,000-person city that their mayor has just been picked for them in a smoke-filled room.

These secret searches have been pushed on state legislators by well-paid “headhunting” contractors, who dominate the hiring process so that the participation of campus search committees is an empty formality.

Closed-door searches are a proven failure. They’ve resulted in disastrous mismatches when unqualified strangers were plopped into unfamiliar campuses. . . .

The only rationale offered for excluding the public from presidential searches is that sitting university presidents will not risk their existing jobs by applying for a new one.

Think about what that’s really protecting: the right of a president to deceive his current campus about his interest in leaving.

Is that really something we care about enough to accept the trade-off of ill-matched presidents who’ve been poorly screened?

LoMonte points to the obvious failures of such searches at Missouri and Iowa and notes as well how:

Members of the Kent State (Ohio) search committee shredded their notes to evade a public-records request.

Trustees at Louisiana State went to the brink of jail in defying a judge’s order to surrender the list of presidential finalists.

A University of Michigan trustee wore a disguise to escort the soon-to-be president on a campus tour.

LoMonte also humorously addresses the bogus argument that without secrecy qualified applicants will be discouraged from applying.  He writes:

Is it true that fewer candidates will apply in publicly visible searches?

No doubt. Just as there’s no doubt more people would apply to drive taxis if valid driver licenses weren’t required, and more people would apply to be cops if we did away with criminal background checks.

Sometimes “more applicants” isn’t really better.

If presidential searches remain open, here’s who won’t apply: (1) people so arrogant they can’t stand the thought of losing; (2) people whose backgrounds won’t hold up to public scrutiny and (3) people with contempt for open government.

Let’s hope the Nebraska Legislature and Governor Pete Ricketts listen to LoMonte and other voices of common sense and reject this dangerous legislation.  And let’s work to ensure that more boards of trustees and administrators also reject secrecy and embrace transparency, democracy, and shared governance.

One thought on “Against Closed-Door Searches

  1. The foot in the door was trustees’ hiring “executive search firms” to locate applicants for university upper-level administrative posts, instead of forming a proper search committee with faculty and working collaboratively at every step. The search becomes proprietary in those corporate eyes, and paranoia follows.

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