The University of Kentucky is a public institution that each year receives $300 million-plus from the taxpayers of Kentucky.
As such, UK is accountable to those taxpayers. And that accountability requires making decisions about the university's future in the open, including the decision about who will become the next president.
A committee of trustees, faculty, students and alumni recently started the search for a successor to President Lee T. Todd Jr., who is retiring next year.
So far, the committee has shown an admirable interest in reaching out to UK's various constituencies for guidance. The committee also has hired a professional search firm to assist it. One of the firm's consultants recently advised the committee that the trend in higher education searches is secrecy.
Some of the most experienced potential candidates will shy away unless they're guaranteed confidentiality, explained Jan Greenwood of Greenwood/Asher, because they don't want to risk alienating their employer or their university's financial supporters. Some university boards have announced only a final choice, without publicizing or hearing from other finalists.
Greenwood also told the committee that more open searches, in which finalists visit the campus for public interviews, also produce successful presidents. It seemed clear, though, that her preference was for secrecy.
That's hardly surprising. It stands to reason that professional search firms prefer operating outside the public view, where they have more latitude and less risk of embarrassment.
It's easy to bemoan the great candidates who got away because they feared public exposure when you never have to identify them.
The search committee members and UK's trustees will face a lot of tough decisions as this process unfolds. As they weigh the options, they should keep in mind the nature of the institution for which they are making decisions.
More than anything, UK depends on public support and trust. And public trust depends on making decisions as openly and with as widespread participation as possible.