Jim Lewers said it was “pretty simple.”
The Iowa Board of Regents violated state open meetings laws during its search for a new president for the University of Iowa, he contends.
“They had a regular meeting … and at the end of the meeting they didn’t officially adjourn and they met both in person and by telephone several times over the next several days,” said Lewers, managing editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
And he’s not alone in his concerns. Lewers’ concerns about transparency in public university presidential searches are shared around the country, as large public universities such as Ohio State University, Oklahoma State University, Purdue University and the University of Iowa, among others, are looking for new leadership. Indiana University announced its new president in March after a completely closed search.
Lewers and the Press-Citizen filed a lawsuit against the Regents, alleging that members illegally gathered in closed session without notice several times from Nov. 10 to Nov. 17, 2006, to discuss public matters regarding the presidential search.
“They contend it was one big meeting — a continuation of the meeting,” he said.
Michael Gartner, executive director of the Iowa Board of Regents and a former newspaper editor, said the discussions were “one adjourned meeting to discuss a personnel issue.”
Gartner said the board operated within Iowa open meetings regulations because they gave notice of the closed session during its Nov. 9 meeting.
The meeting, which the regents claimed lasted until Nov. 17, 2006, remained closed to the public because some of the four presidential finalists did not want their identities revealed, Gartner said.
“I wouldn’t have minded disclosing them, but the candidates didn’t want them disclosed,” Gartner said.
Open or closed?
While freedom of information advocates contend that administrator searches at state universities should be as open to the public as possible, higher education advocates say searches must have at least some confidentiality to attract the best candidates, who may fear that looking elsewhere could jeopardize their current job.
Claire Van Ummerson is the vice president for the Center for Effective Leadership at the American Council on Education, a Washington-based higher education advocacy group.
She said for a public university to lure the best leaders to its campus, identities should not be disclosed until finalists are named.
“If you’re trying to attract people who are [currently] presidents…you need to give them some level of confidentiality,” said Van Ummerson, who has also served as president of Cleveland State University and chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire.
Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Center in Columbia, Mo., has performed research on how public university searches are performed. He said closed searches for public university administrators are “scandalous.”
“A search committee and a headhunter working for the search committee have a vested interest in getting the job done,” Davis said. “They want to get the job done right, but they have a [primary] interest in getting someone in that job.”
According to a recent survey conducted by the American Council on Education, 52 percent of universities relied on external search firms to find new leaders in 2006, an amount that has “close to doubled in the last 20 years,” Van Ummerson said.
Much of the rise in closed presidential searches has come from increased use of private search firms — or headhunters — to pursue talent, just as major corporations would search for a new high-level executive.
Bill Funk is one of those headhunters.
Funk has been in the higher education recruiting business for more than two decades and today heads his own search firm. He and his associates are responsible for finding more than 60 sitting presidents at universities across the country, from Washington to Massachusetts and plenty of public and private institutions in between.
Funk says that “probably 60 percent” of the searches his firm conducts today are open — that is, the names of candidates who are finalists are revealed before hiring decisions are made.
“If you’re a provost, vice president or other dean, there’s a pretty widely accepted notion that you will be revealed,” Funk said.
But if a public university wants to bring a sitting president at another school to lead its campus, the recruitment process needs to be closed until the candidate is hired, Funk said.
“If their names are revealed before they are a finalist, they will drop out,” he said.
When finalists’ names are revealed in searches, “essentially you wipe out the sitting president possibilities” because of the negative image that revelation sends back to their current campuses.
“It will scare away sitting presidents — your pool will be skewed,” Funk said.
Back at the University of Iowa, Gartner said the Regents “conformed with all aspects of the law” because the closed session was used to discuss the presidential candidates.
“No action was taken because you can’t take action in a closed meeting,” Gartner said.
On Nov. 17, 2006, the Iowa state Board of Regents emerged from the private meeting and voted to scrap the Regent-led presidential search and restart the process.
A new presidential search led by the university’s faculty commenced in December 2006.
Van Ummerson said if the University of Iowa chooses to disclose its finalists, it could hinder its quality of candidates.
“They won’t probably end up with a sitting president, but there are many sitting in provost positions throughout the country who are well-trained and well-prepared to take these roles,” she said.
Davis said by closing the search at public universities, the process becomes easier for the committees and consultants while shortchanging the public’s right to be informed.
“It helps them control the field and hand pick the finalists,” Davis said. “If they can close it to public scrutiny, then they can be dealing with a lot fewer people.”
Much of the controversy that surrounds how presidential searches are conducted is rooted in traditions of different levels in the university hierarchy, Funk said.
When most public universities look for a new department leader or college dean, the vast majority of searches are out in the open, Funk said. But when many of the same faculty members are appointed to look for a new president, more is at stake.
“The ethos changes as you move up the ladder of executive rank” to demand a more closed search, Funk said. “We try to tell them at the presidential level there’s a different reaction.”
Davis says there’s a more basic reason for how things are done at the top.
“There’s an economic food chain in institutions of higher learning and university presidents want to climb up,” he said. “Everybody in a market economy wants to move up in terms of prestige and pay and responsibility. I don’t see how open searches are going hurt that.”
When a provost is revealed as a presidential finalist and not hired, they can find themselves on the hot seat and could lose their jobs back home, Funk said.
“Over the 25 years I’ve been doing this, what happens usually is that is not the reason they are ultimately let go,” Funk said, “but it becomes, if you will, the catalyst and they find reasons over the next six to 12 months to move them out.”
Davis said he disagreed.
“If you’re incredibly popular at home, it doesn’t hurt a bit,” he said. “But if you are slinking around in the dark back at home with one foot on a banana peel, you’re probably going to be in trouble anyway.”
Playing on tradition
But much of whether a presidential search will spark an open access controversy on campus depends on how it was done in the past, Funk said.
“The first thing we inquire about is what is [the hiring school’s] tradition and what is your history of doing things,” he said. “We try to counsel them about the ramifications” of open or closed searches.
In 2000, Funk recruited Martin Jischke, who was president of Iowa State University, to the same position at Purdue University, a public institution in Indiana.
That search was completely closed, as is the current one headed by Funk to replace the retiring Jischke at Purdue, who earned $880,950 during the 2006-07 school year — the second-highest salary among all public institutions, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“They really did want to look at sitting presidents because they felt they were at [that] stage,” Funk said. “That process really helped them.”
“The reason it’s not problematic at Purdue is that is how that’s how they’ve always done it.”
Davis said regardless of tradition, closed searches are simply a bad practice.
“I think everybody is trying to apply a private sector model into a public sector job,” Davis said. “They use all sorts of corporate terminology to make it sound like these guys are going to be running a bank or something instead of a flagship institution that is funded by the public.”
Sunshine State lives up to its nickname
State laws vary about how open public university presidential searches need to be conducted, Van Ummerson said. Typically, presidential searches can remain closed until finalists for the position are named, she said.
But in Florida, all public university presidential candidates’ names are made public before and throughout the search process, regardless of whether the candidate applies for the job or is nominated by someone else.
Sandra Chance, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said the state’s sunshine laws lets the public “make sure we have the best pool, but also the most diverse pool,” and that public university presidential candidates know they will be made public before decisions are made.
Davis said Florida’s law shows that transparent searches can succeed.
“You can have a completely open search from day one until the hire and guess what? Florida hasn’t fallen into the ocean yet,” Davis said. “There’s not evidence — anecdotal or otherwise — to say that it has harmed the caliber of presidents found in that state.”
But as a result, Van Ummerson said “a lot of sitting presidents don’t look for positions in Florida” to avoid controversy at their own campus, should they not be selected for the job.
“It’s very hard to go back to your campus and say ‘I didn’t want this job anyway,’” she said.
But even with some of the most open sunshine laws in the country regarding administrator searches, the public does not always know the full story.
Funk, who recruited the current presidents at Florida State University and the University of West Florida, where he said, “no shenanigans were involved,” has “observed some cases where the sunshine law worked in reverse of what it was intended to do.”
Sometimes search committees make unofficial decisions in private, Funk said.
“What happens is they decide who they want before they announce that final group and promise that person [the job] before they go public,” Funk said. “What’s really unfortunate is you have four or five other people who are out there. I think it’s kind of a sham.”
“It’s one of the ways you can get sitting presidents in there.”
While Florida’s law attracts presidential candidates in the open, other states likely will not adopt similar policies any time soon, Davis said.
“I don’t see a lot of states moving in that direction to say the least,” Davis said. “I see more states falling to the headhunter argument saying they have to close these things.”
With a shrinking pool of talent, the stakes could become higher as annual presidential salaries approach $1 million.
More public university presidential searches are closed as a result of aging leadership among university leaders, Van Ummerson said. She said that nearly half of university presidents were at least 61-years-old in 2006 — more than three times greater than twenty years earlier.
“There’s going to be a lot of retirements. Depending on hiring a sitting president isn’t going to work,” Van Ummerson said. “It is not just individuals changing jobs, it is individuals who are retiring so the pool is not as robust it used to be, in terms of numbers.”
“In terms of numbers, there’s going to be higher competition for the people.”
But just because there is greater competition for new university leaders, that does not mean searches have to be less open, Davis said.
“It’s very much the case that there is a shrinking talent pool,” he said. “Where I get off the bus is I don’t see how secrecy helps that any.”
At the University of Iowa, faculty members are leading a search that has been more open than the last, with posted meeting times and minutes at the university Web site, although David Johnsen, committee chairman and dean of the College of Dentistry, said the committee has not decided whether to disclose presidential finalists’ names to the public.
Funk said he was not surprised to see the public outcry surrounding the private search at Iowa.
“You could have almost predicted that was going to be a slippery slope,” said Funk, who recruited Iowa’s previous two presidents. “They had a tradition of how they did these presidential searches” in the open.
Keeping a search open does not mean a university will end up with an unqualified candidate, Funk said.
“The only difference is you’re going to have no or certainly fewer sitting presidents in your pool because they are worried about confidentiality because it could hurt their jobs,” Funk said.
Today, the Press-Citizen’s lawsuit is pending in Polk County District Court and the University of Iowa is still without a permanent president, but has set a July 1 hiring deadline.
Past critics have praised the new search process as being more open than the first, with meeting notices and minutes published on the university Web site.
Sheldon Kurtz, faculty senate president at the University of Iowa, led a “no confidence” vote of the Regents after the first presidential search failed.
He said the new search committee, composed of university faculty, staff and students, has been more accessible and transparent than the first.
“I think it’s going quite well, based upon the fact that they are keeping people apprised on what has been happening,” Kurtz said.
Still, the presidential finalists may not be disclosed to the public, said David Johnsen, the search committee’s chairman and dean of the College of Dentistry. He said the finalists could face anything from “extensive campus interviews” or “could even be a closed process,” as the committee has not decided.
But Kurtz said presidential candidates at the University of Iowa should not be afraid of publicizing their candidacy to lead other universities.
“We can’t worry about them, we’ve got to worry about us,” Kurtz said. “We’re a public institution. They’ve got to learn that they have to be out in the public.”