Secret presidential search not what Louisville needs

If the serial scandals at the University of Louisville teach anything, it’s the perils of secrecy, which is why trustees should reverse their plans for a secret presidential search.

Yes, we’ve heard the warnings from search firms that top candidates will shy away unless guaranteed total confidentiality. University boards pay consultants big bucks ($170,000 at U of L) to run presidential searches and increasingly defer to their desire for secrecy.

But this search could accomplish more for U of L than just hiring a president.

A search that involves as many stakeholders as possible at every step could revive morale that has been battered, as faculty member Ricky Jones puts it, by “a lack of leadership, a lack of transparency and a lack of trust.” An open search would signal that U of L’s new board is serious about change.

Not long ago, finalists for university presidencies routinely made public visits and interacted with faculty and students. Faculty, who can throw a wide net in academia, had time to research finalists and provide valuable input.

But U of L board chairman J. David Grissom has indicated the board plans to choose a new president before introducing that person to the campus and community.

They should reconsider.

It’s fine to protect candidates’ identities until the field is down to two or three. At that point, public interviews improve the vetting process, avert a bad hire and give the new president a better start.

At both the University of Kentucky in 2011 and Morehead State University this year, all but one finalist dropped out before the campus visits. But Eli Capilouto at UK and Joseph “Jay” Morgan at Morehead appeared at campus forums, and stakeholders had a chance to offer feedback before the board made a final decision.

Complicating the U of L search is the presence of an interim president, Greg Postel, who could be perceived as having the inside track.

Grissom and trustees have promised a “listening tour” to gauge what the campus community and other constituents want in a president. That’s good. The outreach would have to be powerful to make up for a closed search.

U of L has suffered from closely held decision making. The former president and inner circle who enriched themselves at the university’s expense could not afford transparency. In such a closed and fetid atmosphere, accountability dies — at many levels, as the recent news about the basketball program makes clear.

Before the FBI pounced on alleged bribery as part of luring recruits, there were prostitutes luring recruits which led to U of L being stripped of a national title, sure signs of lost institutional control. U of L’s climate of secrecy enabled bad investments and cozy deals that stripped its endowment of millions of dollars and funded exorbitant compensation for former President James Ramsey and his lieutenants.

U of L was put on probation by its accrediting agency after Gov. Matt Bevin botched his efforts to dislodge Ramsey last year. And, thanks to state cuts and internal mismanagement, the university faces a $48 million deficit which led to plans to defund the student newspaper (bad news for accountability and transparency) and a credit rating downgrade Oct. 3.

Given how badly secrecy has worked, the board should try something new. The presidential search is a chance to prove U of L is ready to throw open the doors and let the sun scour every dank corner.