BY HANK REICHMAN
Add Kennesaw State University president Sam Olens to the list of college and university executives hired in secret and departing under a cloud not long after. Last week Olens submitted his resignation amidst a growing scandal over his handling of a political protest by five cheerleaders, who took a knee at a football game during the national anthem.
Olens was appointed just a little over a year ago over widespread protest by faculty members and others, who criticized his lack of higher education experience and his defense as Georgia attorney general of the state’s same-sex marriage ban. A formal search committee for the presidential selection was never created, despite calls for one by the faculty senate. As an October 2016 letter from AAUP Associate Secretary Hans-Joerg Tiede to the Kennesaw State regents recounted,
In a letter to the board of regents, dated May 23, 2016, Professor Humayun Zafar, chair of the faculty senate, and Professor Andrew Pieper, president of the local AAUP chapter, outlined a proposal on how to include faculty in a search committee for the new president. When reports began to surface in the news media indicating that Mr. Olens was to be appointed without a national search, the faculty senate adopted a resolution on August 29, 2016, calling upon Chancellor Henry M. Huckaby to advocate for the inclusion of the faculty in a presidential search committee. On October 4, Chancellor Huckaby announced the decision of the board committee to recommend Mr. Olens for the Kennesaw State presidency to the full board.
Olens’ inept handling of the cheerleader protest and his crude attempt to disguise what really happened led to his downfall, but it should have been obvious early on that this career politician with no experience in higher education was a poor choice to begin with. In September, the cheerleaders took a knee during the playing of the national anthem before a football game. The university then changed its pregame ceremony, keeping the cheerleaders off the field during the anthem. The university claimed the change was logistical in nature and had nothing to do with the protest. It had been planned earlier and the timing, the university claimed, was coincidental. That claim, dubious from the start, was quickly discredited.
Days after the protest both the local sheriff — who is a Republican — and a Republican state representative who chairs a subcommittee in charge of appropriations for the state’s public universities complained publicly about the protest. They also expressed confidence that Olens would remedy the situation and not long thereafter the new policy was put in place. The university denied that political pressure had anything to do with the decision to change the pregame ceremony, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution unearthed text messages from the two politicians bragging about influencing the decision. Following publication of the texts, the University System of Georgia announced it would conduct a “special review” of allegations that the decision had been politically motivated.
In November, the university reversed course, and the cheerleaders were back on the field during the anthem. In a statement, Olens belatedly said he respected the First Amendment rights of the cheerleaders, although he disagreed with their manner of protest. Soon afterward the University System’s review was released. It castigated Kennesaw State and Olens for not consulting the system on the changes, and questioned the explanation that the change was made coincidentally and not in response to the cheerleaders’ protest.
“President Olens was aware of the proposed [pregame ceremony] change three days before it was implemented and did nothing to stop the change,” the report said. “President Olens also did not advise the University System Office of the proposed change, though he was instructed to do so earlier that week.”
Unfortunately, Kennesaw State’s experience is not unusual. As attorney Frank D. LoMonte, professor of media law and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida and former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, wrote in an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, “State after state has joined a shortsighted ‘race to the bottom’ in competing to see who can be the most secretive in filling some of state government’s most powerful jobs.”
The lack of public oversight has led to disastrously bad mismatches and near-misses. In 2013, Penn State University came within hours of announcing New York medical-school administrator David Smith as its new president. Only a fortuitous leak of Smith’s name averted a catastrophe, when the university learned that Smith was under investigation by his current employer for financial misconduct.
At the University of Missouri, a secret search led to the hiring of catastrophically failed president Tim Wolfe, plucked out of the software industry with no education-management expertise. Wolfe’s inability to relate to students was exposed when he proved incapable of responding to campus racial tensions that not only destroyed his presidency but plunged the university into a financial and enrollment free-fall from which it still struggles.
Rigorous background-checking is more vital than ever, now that it has become well-known that universities secretly “pass the trash” of harassers from one institution to another by letting wrongdoers quietly resign. The only effective check is to make the names of candidates public while there’s time for whistleblowers to come forward. . . .
At the University of Georgia, documents pried loose from the Board of Regents by a college journalist showed that top Regents administrators actively discouraged a well-credentialed female candidate — Cathy Cox, now the dean of the Mercer University law school — from competing in the most recent presidential search. That cleared the path to elevate an insider candidate, Jere Morehead, to be UGA’s 22nd consecutive white male president. There is no indication any other candidate was even considered.
Then, of course, there is the case of the University of Iowa, now on the AAUP’s list of institutions sanctioned for violations of shared governance after J. Bruce Harreld, was appointed president by the Iowa Board of Regents in spite of overwhelming objections from faculty. The AAUP’s investigation found that in contrast to historical practice at the university, which had been to involve faculty fully in presidential searches, the board designed this search process specifically to prevent any meaningful faculty role in the selection of the final candidate.
One problem associated with secret searches has been the growing use of executive search firms. In research first reported at the AAUP’s 2016 annual conference, Judith A. Wilde and James H. Finkelstein of George Mason University found that the vast majority of public-university presidential searches performed in the previous year — more than 75 percent — were conducted with the assistance of such firms. Yet, they discovered, the firms rarely perform even the most basic background-checking on the presidents they place, not even calling the current employer to make sure that the candidate isn’t leaving under a cloud of scandal. As LoMonte commented, “You’d put more diligence into hiring a dog-sitter than colleges put into hiring presidents.”
On November 3, 2015, the AAUP issued a Statement on Presidential Searches, which declared that “decisions to forgo public campus visits and public forums by finalists violate longstanding principles of shared governance.”
The statement referenced 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, which 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.
A 2013 report from the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance entitled Confidentiality and Faculty Representation in Academic Governance declared:
Unless mandated to be open by state law, many such searches [for higher administrative officers] have an initial, confidential screening stage conducted by a search committee that includes faculty members. The next stage is normally one in which finalists are interviewed. At this point in the process, the names of finalists should be made public to the campus community so that the community at large, faculty committees, or at least selected faculty members have an opportunity to interview the finalists and forward their views to the search committee or to a consulting firm employed by the college or university.
The conclusion of the same document recommended:
Searches for presidents and other chief academic officers should have an open phase that allows individual faculty members as well as faculty bodies to review the credentials of finalists, ask questions, and share opinions before a final decision is made.
It is sometimes argued that exceptional candidates, including sitting presidents, will not apply for positions without guarantees of secrecy. Hence, we are told, colleges and universities that follow AAUP guidelines risk losing out on the best candidates. But no one has yet to present any evidence to suggest that this is indeed the case. Moreover, is an institution well served by a process that allows applicants to deceive their current employers about their intention of leaving? How much institutional loyalty can be expected from a president who has already betrayed the trust of a previous institution? Experience does demonstrate, however, that secret searches invariably benefit candidates with inside connections, like Kennesaw’s Olens and Iowa’s Harreld. Moreover, the growing number of presidents hired in secret who, like Olens and Wolfe, leave under a cloud should be caution enough.
As LoMonte concludes,
The president of a public university is equivalent to the mayor of a mid-sized city, with power over police, housing, healthcare, food services and personnel. Nobody would want to live in a city where the mayor was elected by 19 rich business executives in a locked room. Students, faculty and alumni deserve a chance to publicly question multiple serious candidates face-to-face, to avert the next Tim Wolfe or Sam Olens mismatch.
Public accountability doesn’t discourage good candidates from applying. It discourages applications from arrogant candidates who are opposed to open government or whose backgrounds are tainted by scandal. What will discourage good applicants is cultivating a reputation as a state where top university jobs are wired for politically connected cronies.