How open will the UK presidential search be?

Lee T. Todd, Jr. announced on Sept. 8, 2010 his retirement as president of the University of Kentucky. He and wife, Patsy, left, were greeted by UK board member Terry Mobley, right, as he entered the room.
Lee T. Todd, Jr. announced on Sept. 8, 2010 his retirement as president of the University of Kentucky. He and wife, Patsy, left, were greeted by UK board member Terry Mobley, right, as he entered the room.

The University of Kentucky's presidential search committee members have one obvious question to answer. But, alongside who the next president will be, is a second: Will they introduce finalists to the UK community or keep the process secret until they've chosen one candidate?

Britt Brockman, chairman of the UK Board of Trustees, calls the second question an important one about "a balance between preserving the privacy rights of people involved in the search ... and the need to keep support for this process by constant and open communication," as he wrote recently on his blog.

Nationwide, it appears that privacy rights are winning out.

A growing number of university presidential searches are dominated by executive headhunters in a more corporate and more secret process that is very much like the selection of a corporate chief executive officer. That has set up a battle between the individual privacy rights of the candidates and the need to have faculty input and public scrutiny.

For faculty, administrators and search experts, the issue spurs plenty of debate. They argue not just about privacy rights, but accountability and transparency, particularly at a school like UK, which is funded with taxpayer dollars.

For the group that represents professors across the country, the answer is simple.

A single-candidate search in which faculty don't participate excludes the most important group of stakeholders at a university, said B. Robert Kreiser of the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C.

"From our organization's perspective, a president should be selected only if he or she has been vetted by at least a selected group of faculty," Kreiser said. "A lot of people think running a college or university is like running a business. The culture is extremely different."

Ernie Yanarella, a political science professor at UK and former faculty trustee, agreed, saying a more open search creates more trust and, hence, a greater base of support for the incoming president.

"Recognizing the risks and perils, all things considered, it is better to have an open process rather than a closed one," Yanarella said. "The underlying issue is trust, how far can one trust a committee that is in some ways pursuing the most important decision of this university over the last 10 years."

A chilling effect

Search experts say the corporate mode of choosing leaders in secret has become a necessity in presidential searches.

"The very best people in a presidential search are often not looking for a position. They've been approached and persuaded and they don't want to risk their current jobs," said Michael Baer, a vice president who heads the education practice at the search firm of Isaacson, Adams in Washington, D.C. "If you want to attract the very best people, you can't put them at risk."

That risk, Baer and other executive search experts said, is losing your current job for being disloyal. Even worse, experts say, is being publicly proclaimed a candidate, and then embarrassed by not getting the position.

Proponents of the single-candidate system cite the 2010 case of Desdemona Cardoza, who spent 22 years at California State University-Los Angeles and was provost when she applied for the provost's job at California State-Long Beach. She was named one of four finalists for the job, which she did not get. But in the process Cardoza also incurred the ire of the president of Cal State-L.A.

She is no longer the provost there.

John Thornburgh of the search firm Witt/Keiffer said that one reason for secrecy in presidential searches is that more schools want experienced candidates. And candidates who are already presidents risk a lot if their names become public.

"Presidents have a very prominent role in fund-raising and building relationships and really serving as the face of an institution. If there's common knowledge he's looking to leave, it causes high anxiety on campus. It could have a chilling impact on fund-raising."

Consultant preference

The executive search firm hired by UK — Greenwood/Asher — recommended releasing only one name to faculty, staff and students after he or she is chosen.

During a November trustee retreat, consultant Jan Greenwood said one scenario could involve narrowing the field to three to five candidates who could be interviewed privately to avoid media scrutiny and campus speculation.

However, UK spokesman Jay Blanton confirmed that the meetings of the search committee are covered by the Kentucky Open Meetings Act. Although the search firm could take precautions to keep candidates' identity secret — such as using alternate entrances and closing off meeting rooms — the meeting is public until the committee votes to go behind closed doors. If votes are taken, they must be done in the public view.

The Board of Trustees will make the decision on how to conduct the search — publicly or privately — at its Feb. 22 meeting. The search committee is supposed to deliver three to five names to trustees by mid-April.

Yanarella said there is little doubt the trustees will go the confidential route: "The handwriting is on the wall," he said.

A move toward privacy

UK's search committee was told that confidentiality was necessary to get the best candidates.

Greenwood said that the candidates who gravitate to more public searches are younger, less experienced candidates, not other presidents. She cited the example of the University of Minnesota, in which a sole candidate was named after four names had been forwarded to the board of regents and two of them dropped out rather than be part of a publicly identified pool.

Greenwood/Asher also conducted the 2001 search that ended with UK President Lee T. Todd Jr., who will step down in June. In that search, three finalists, including the businessman and former engineering professor Todd, visited the campus and met publicly with groups of faculty, staff and students.

Baer, who started his career as a professor and administrator at UK, agreed that presidential searches have become more corporate.

"But they do have faculty on their committee who are representing their voice," he said of presidential searches. "A lot of people are involved in the decision making."

UK's search committee is made up of six trustees, one alumni representative, three faculty members and two students.

One of the faculty members, Hollie Swanson, who also heads UK's faculty Senate, said she understands the need for confidentiality, "but I want to make sure the faculty has a strong voice in the process."

She organized a meeting between Brockman and faculty members last week to discuss their concerns.

Even faculty are split on the issue.

Lori Gonzalez, dean of the College of Health Sciences at UK, said she favors the single-candidate model because that allows the search committee to do the job it is designed to do: "People use the word 'secretly.' I just say that confidentiality is protected until they determine who is the best fit."

A case for openness

John Thelin, a professor of higher education history at UK, compares a university president's job to that of a governor or other important elected official.

"Being president of a major public university makes you a very public figure," he said. "I can't imagine those other roles not being chosen with a public forum. If they don't wish to have their identity known, maybe they're not a good match.

"I can't imagine a search where the finalists don't meet the university community, but I guess that sort of thing is now out of vogue."

UK history professor Karen Petrone said candidates for all other academic posts, such as deans and provosts, come to campus to meet with faculty and other groups.

"In those meetings you can gauge a lot of information about the person, you gain a lot from watching them interact with all the groups on campus," she said. "So it's a shame to have the process truncated in this way."

Sometimes a search will depend on the culture of a school. Kate Madigan chairs the Binghamton University Council and its search committee. Late last year, that committee brought five candidates to campus; then three finalists were recommended to the chancellor of the State University of New York System, which oversees Binghamton.

"We have a very collaborative culture here, and the search committee felt very strongly about keeping the search open," Madigan said. "We got tons of feedback, and all that feedback was analyzed by the council before they sent the chancellor our finalists."

A president has not yet been chosen.

Mike Tanner, academic officer at the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, said he doesn't favor either approach. Searches for presidents in so-called "sunshine states" — states with liberal open records and meetings laws — are automatically more open, and he advises potential presidential candidates to enter any search by assessing their own tolerance of risk.

"With presidents, very often you're going after people who are often seen as the symbolic embodiment of the institution itself," Tanner said. "It's higher stakes."

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