Confidential search draws concern

All of the eight finalists in the ongoing university presidential search have declined to visit the WSU campus for fear of their candidacy being exposed to their current employers.

The Presidential Search Advisory Committee decided early on to withhold the identities of all candidates until after the Board of Regents makes its final decision, expected in April.

Open-government advocates, as well as the WSU Faculty Senate, have expressed concern for this kind of closed-door search process. Brian Schraum, Edward R. Murrow College of Communication instructor, said he thinks it is inappropriate to shut the public out of such an important decision.

“We have no idea what’s going on,” Schraum said. “We’re all supposed to like sit around and wait for the white smoke to come out of Bryan Tower when they’ve announced somebody and in the meantime we have no idea who they’re talking to.”

The committee recently announced eight finalists, consisting of four current university presidents, three provosts and an individual from the private sector. It has also revealed the list contains some women and people of color, but names and resumes remain concealed.

Mike Worthy, chair of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee, said in order to draw in the most suitable applicants, it is necessary to conduct the search without endangering their current positions.

“If you hope to attract the best-qualified candidates, and particularly those who are currently university presidents elsewhere, it really is necessary to approach it on a confidential search basis,” Worthy said.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., said this trend of closed-door presidential searches has grown in universities across the country in recent years. Often they result in dissatisfaction throughout the school and community.

“That’s just a proven failed way to pick a president,” LoMonte said. “If open government is treated as an annoyance in the selection process, you can imagine exactly what kind of president you’re going to get. You’re going to get a secretive president that doesn’t believe that he’s accountable to the students and faculty.”

LoMonte said it is not necessary to make the full list of candidates available, but once there are a handful of finalists their names and qualifications ought to be publicized.

“Surely by then, by the last three or four, they have done reference checks back at the home campus, meaning it’s no longer secret that you’re a candidate,” LoMonte said. “So at that point the one and only justification for secrecy goes completely out the window.”

At this investigative stage, Worthy said the committee works with Isaacson, Miller, a professional executive search firm. The firm helps in conducting discrete research into applicants’ backgrounds and qualifications without alerting their current employers.

Worthy said the university will pay Isaacson, Miller a total of $125,000 for assistance in the search process, as well as additional reimbursement for all costs involved, such as candidates’ airfare.

The other rationale for withholding even the finalists’ identities is that the public could not properly evaluate a candidate on the basis of only a short speech or meeting, Worthy said.

“In the interview process with dozens of potential candidates, there were many who were extremely eloquent and who would’ve made an excellent impression on someone up on stage,” Worthy said. “But at the end of the day when you apply all of the other parameters that we are using to benchmark these candidates, they weren’t the most qualified people to do the job.”

Worthy said the board took care to select not only proportionate numbers of representatives from each university constituency, but also broad-minded people capable of thinking beyond their own interests. However, some argue no committee of manageable size can accurately reflect all stakeholders.

“There is a diverse constituency on the campus of a major state university and that diverse constituency can’t possibly be adequately represented,” LoMonte said. “You really want to see how that candidate interacts with Joe Average Student. You want to see if that person is responsive to the concerns of the average student and acts like he cares.”

LoMonte said a good compromise would be to bring five or six finalists to the campus for public interviews a reasonable time before the vote. This allows faculty and other constituency members to thoroughly vett candidates, as well as develop confidence in them and in the search process.

The Faculty Senate voted unanimously in October in favor of a resolution calling for an open presidential search. Donna Potts, faculty senator and president of the WSU chapter of the Association of American University Professors, introduced the resolution which was subsequently rejected in December by the Board of Regents.

Potts said governing boards such as WSU’s Board of Regents have historically consisted of primarily business people. The effect of this is the boards tend to lack an adequate understanding of higher education, she said.

One recent example of this occurred at the University of Missouri in fall of 2015. After selecting business executive Tim Wolfe as president, the university found him to be unsuited to the job. His failure to properly address a series of racial incidents on campus led to his resignation in November. Because of the secretive manner in which he was selected, Wolfe had little backing from the community.

“The minute the first controversy arose he had no support to fall back on because he had been hoisted onto this campus as a complete stranger,” LoMonte said. “You have to bring the finalists to the campus so that people feel some degree of confidence that the process is legitimate and fair and that the best person is chosen.”

As universities are first and foremost academic institutions, Potts believes the faculty should have a more proportionate representation than the seven faculty members present on the search committee.

“No matter how strongly they speak up in favor of someone who really would understand the concerns of the university community, their voices could likely be drowned out by everybody else on the committee,” Potts said.

Worthy said whatever doubts faculty and the community may have, the committee is confident in the track records and motives of all finalists.

“I was extremely proud about the caliber of individuals who came forward to apply for the position and said that Washington State University’s reputation is drawing them to the job,” Worthy said. “It was exciting to me to hear so many highly qualified candidates say ‘I’m here applying for the job because of the reputation and potential of WSU.’”

Despite the possibility of choosing a suitable president, many continue to have misgivings about a selection process which is marked by secrecy and does not allow for substantial public feedback.

“The willingness to be open and transparent ought to be a qualification,” Schraum said. “I want a president who’s willing to stand up publicly and say not just ‘I want to be a university president,’ but ‘I want to be the president of Washington State University,’ and what’s so bad about asking somebody to do that?”