Closed presidential searches proliferate among colleges across the country

The selection of a new college president is one of the most important decisions a school makes, with huge implications for students, faculty, alumni and the community as a whole.

Such decisions ideally are the result of months of careful consideration by university search committees. Nominees are solicited, committees convened and candidates are vetted with the intention of finding the perfect fit.

Sometimes, finalists are brought to campus and presented for members of the public to question. But often, the first introduction a campus has to its new president comes in the form of a hiring announcement. Students and faculty may never learn who else was considered.

The battle over transparency in executive searches begins almost as soon as a presidential vacancy is announced. On one side are the universities who argue that closed searches, in which candidates are promised confidentiality either until they are named a finalist or unless they are selected, encourage the best candidates to apply. On the other hand are journalists and other open government advocates who argue that the public’s interest is best served by a process in which all candidates can be vetted openly.

Despite the different philosophies, both sides have the same goal, said Michael McLendon, a professor of higher education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University.

“Everybody’s arguing for the public interest,” he said.

The closer a search comes to announcing a finalist, the more intense the debate becomes. Increasingly, it’s a debate often only resolved through lawsuits and legislative action.

Among schools that have recently concluded searches, few have tried as hard to impose secrecy over the process as the Louisiana State University system. The university system began searching in November for someone to fill its top job, a newly created position that has replaced the president of the LSU system and the chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus.

From the beginning, the search was handled by the LSU Foundation, a private nonprofit that raises money for the university. In a deposition, the search committee’s chairman said the school’s attorney urged him and other members of the committee to avoid talking about the search by email or other written communication that would be subject to release under the state’s public records law, The Daily Reveille reported.

As the group narrowed down the candidates, reporters from the Reveille, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate and NOLA Media Group, which publishes New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, asked to see records that would identify finalists.

Louisiana state law says that applications for “public positions of authority” are public records, but LSU declined the requests, saying that the university didn’t have copies of the records because it didn’t conduct the search.

Shortly after the university named F. King Alexander the sole finalist, the media filed suit. The professional papers’ lawsuits were combined, and within a span of a few days, their suit and the one filed by Andrea Gallo, then the Reveille’s editor-in-chief, went before two separate district court judges.

Gallo lost her suit seeking the applicants’ names. The judge ruled LSU didn’t have custody of the records and that candidates recruited by a search firm were not technically applicants whose records were subject to public records law.

Bill Funk, whose firm was hired by the LSU Foundation to conduct the search, said that distinction is important because recruited candidates often have to be granted confidentiality or they won’t apply at all.

“From a recruiter’s point of view … [the] best candidates are those candidates who are not looking for a job,” Funk said. “What your search consultant is supposed to do is to go out and try to entice very successful and successful people to give this job consideration.”

The Advocate and NOLA Media Group won their suit, with Judge Janice Clark ordering the school’s board of supervisors to release the records.

That was in April. LSU immediately announced its plans to appeal, given the differing rulings by the district judges and their own desire to preserve the confidentiality of the search.

LSU sought a stay of Clark’s order from both an appeals court and the state’s Supreme Court, but each declined to intervene. In the meantime, the paper’s attorney asked Clark to find the school in contempt for continuing to refuse to release the records, which she did — imposing a $500 fine for each day the records continued to be withheld.

Clark has threatened jail and issued a subpoena ordering sheriff’s deputies to seize the records, but LSU told deputies it did not have any records to release. In September, the two sides agreed to a compromise, in which the university gave Clark, but not the media organizations, copies of the records while it appeals her ruling. LSU officials declined to comment on the compromise, or its earlier statements that it did not have the records.

Gallo said she is hopeful the names will be released.

“It’s a question of looking kind of at the ethics of the search and who was included in this candidate pool and why did F. King Alexander emerge victorious from everybody else,” she said. “I want to know what kind of people want be president of my university, and I want to be able to vet those people a little bit.”

Similar ethical questions emerged after Purdue University’s presidential search last year, said Kirsten Gibson, who was then the editor of The Purdue Exponent.

In that search, which was also led by Funk’s firm, Indiana’s governor, Mitch Daniels, was named president. At issue for many was that he had appointment many of the trustees who hired him, the Exponent reported. More than 1,300 signed a petition asking the trustees to withdraw the offer.

The Inspector General’s Office looked into Daniels’ appointment and found no ethics violations, the Exponent reported. The IGO said there was no conflict of interest because Daniels had to appoint the trustees as part of his duty as governor, according to the Exponent.

Though she wishes the search could have been open, Gibson said she feels “the quality of candidates most likely would have been lower” and understood the university’s desire for a closed search.

Candidates often reluctant to go public, consultants say

Today, outside trends may be adding more pressure for schools, McLendon said. In recent years, many presidents have been retiring, creating a need for strong successors. And where provosts used to seek presidential positions, their interest has slumped as the job has become more focused on fundraising and philanthropy, McLendon said.

“Universities are attempting to hire presidents with a smaller applicant pool than before and with even greater pressure on them [than] before to find a top candidate for the position,” he said. “What they would argue is that laws that do anything to scare off top talent are making it very difficult.”

A variety of state laws govern the search processes at public colleges. While some states, like Florida, are known for openness, others, like Maryland, enable confidential searches. At least five states specifically exempt records related to executive searches; about 20 others have laws that could potentially exempt records.

In some states, only finalists — and not all applicants — are required to be made public. States like Colorado, New Mexico and South Carolina require a certain number of finalists to be named. In other states, any number of finalists is accepted, a practice that can sometimes result in a “finalist of one” situation, said Funk, founder and president of search firm R. William Funk & Associates.

In the last 30 years, Funk said he has been involved in roughly 375 searches for presidents and chancellors. In a July proposal to Florida Atlantic University, Funk boasted of recruiting presidents for two-thirds of public colleges in the Association of American Universities, whose invitation-only membership is composed of top research universities.

“Here in Texas, for a public university, the ruling is that finalists have to be announced, but ‘finalists’ kind of is in the eye of the search committee,” Funk said. “If you have just one finalist, then you only announce one.”

Laws like New Mexico’s, which states that five finalists must be announced, can be frustrating if the search committee doesn’t have that many candidates that they actually want to keep considering, Funk said.

Most open searches are kept closed until the searchers decide on about two to four final candidates, said Jamie Ferrare, managing principal of AGB Search and the Association of Governing Boards’ senior vice president.

Even searches conducted in states with broad open meeting and records laws can be tinged with secrecy, Funk said.

Sometimes a candidate who is unwilling to take the chance of entering a public search, but who is wanted by members of the school’s board, will be promised the position, Funk said.

“Deals are still cut in the back room,” Funk said. “Because they know unless they make that promise, that guy’s not coming in or that gal’s not coming into the pool.”

Aside from state laws, traditions can factor into the types of searches institutions pursue, Funk said.

Schools in the Association of American Universities, like Purdue University, typically perform closed searches, while schools in the American Association of State Colleges and Universities have “a pretty strong tradition of bringing in three finalists to the campus,” Funk said.

When considering how difficult it will be to find candidates, the type of search does matter, Ferrare said.

If the institution really wants candidates who are currently presidents at other institutions, an open search might not work, Ferrare said. A president might be afraid of endangering fundraising efforts at his home campus, Ferrare said.

“People who are not sitting presidents tend to stand for an open search more easily than a sitting president,” Ferrare said. “Generally speaking, if it’s a president, the answer’s no, they just will not come in.”

Even some provosts are “increasingly reluctant” to be part of an open search, Funk said. For some, there’s a fear that losing too many potential positions could hurt their upward mobility, he said. “You get to a point where another institution might say, ‘Gee, why would we want to hire someone who’s been a candidate at four other places who didn’t choose them?’” Funk said.

Tradition can influence individuals’ decisions on whether to participate in an open search as well.

“Since they’re used to that culture, sometimes the presidents and provosts of other AASCU schools are more willing, if you will, to come into an open search,” Funk said.

Though open searches can pull “an excellent pool,” the better recruiting opportunities associated with closed searches make them more appealing for his firm, he said.

“We always like to be able to recruit widely and capture as many good candidates as we can,” Funk said. “It’s not that we don’t do [open searches] or can’t do them, it’s just that we recognize going in that there’ll be people who don’t want to be candidates.”

Though getting candidates may be tougher, Ferrare said he still prefers to conduct open searches.

“Overall, I would say it’s always best to do an open search,” Ferrare said. “It provides greater exposure, and I think that’s always the cleanest and the best way to do it.”

Funk said he has personal reservations about open searches.

“I guess it comes down, on a very personal, human level, why do you want people to be embarrassed publicly of being unsuccessful?” Funk said. “We do them [searches] both ways and we’re proud of our process. I think we have great outcomes in both cases, but … I think there are advantages to both if you take everything into consideration, and disadvantages to both.”

While McLendon calls for finding a balance that allows for both openness and confidentiality, such as announcing only the finalists in a presidential search, he said all of the factors playing into modern searches could make that difficult.

“I think this may be a challenge of a magnitude that we’ve never before faced in higher education,” he said.

Journalists push back against secrecy

The media and faculty members are the most likely groups to call for openness, Funk said. Student journalists, who are sometimes the only media covering a search on a day-to-day basis, often find their efforts stymied by closed-door processes.

At Northern Illinois University, then-Editor Kelly Bauer, led her staff in a call for openness in the university’s most recent search, which concluded earlier this year.

The university conducted a “closed, hybrid search,” said Paul Palian, NIU’s director of media and public relations. A 28-member search committee gave the Board of Trustees four candidates to consider. Those four interviewed with the board and met with stakeholder groups. The board then selected the university’s next president, offered him the job and confirmed the decision at a public meeting, Palian said.

Public meetings were announced and updates were posted to the search committee’s website, but the public never got names of any candidates except the single finalist, Palian said. All participants signed a confidentiality agreement.

“It was a closed search at the beginning to protect the identity of those candidates that were applying for the job, especially during the process of the search,” Palian said. “There were candidates that may have been up for other jobs, et cetera, so you didn’t want that information out there. It allowed us to attract a strong pool of candidates.”

Bauer and her staff at The Northern Star, however, felt that the process should have been open and were bothered by the lack of student input in the search. Two students were on the committee, but that was the extent of their input, Bauer said.

“We just felt like if something that important is going to be private at a public university, it’s just ridiculous, it’s unacceptable,” Bauer said. In protest, the staff published a front-page editorial imploring the candidates to come forward.

“This is a crucial moment for the community, and its members must know who will be President John Peters’ successor,” the editorial board wrote.

A small banner was published on the front page of each subsequent issue, counting the days the university community had “been in the dark.”

“We just decided that it was such a huge issue and related so much to our core readership that we needed to put it on the front page to show people how serious we were,” Bauer said. The candidates remained confidential, however, and the search ended April 2 with the hiring of Doug Baker, who was then provost at the University of Idaho.

Baker was hired by NIU just a little over a month after being passed over by the University of Wyoming for its top post. In that search too, members of the media fought for access to search records. The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, The Casper Star-Tribune and the Associated Press sued the university in November 2012 when the university refused to release documents that would identify the finalists.

The media won in district court in January, but faced a second battle when just after that ruling, legislation was passed to allow such documents to be withheld. The university withdrew its motion for an amended ruling, however, and released four finalists’ names in February. Within days, the university named its next president. (Oklahoma State University’s provost was hired.)

Chad Baldwin, the university’s director of institutional communications, said the board of trustees felt they “would get a better, deeper pool of candidates” by hosting a confidential search, and that some candidates did pull out of the process when the school announced it would release finalists’ names.

“I think the board’s feeling is that the confidential process is the reason we attracted such a big pool and it’s just very fortunate that we had an outstanding candidate who was willing to have his name go public,” Baldwin said.

The fact that the university is funded by taxes and is Wyoming’s only state university made it important for the public to have some knowledge of the finalists, Casper Star-Tribune Editor Darrell Ehrlick said.

“I think not to understand that they are legitimate stakeholders is a slap in the face to Wyoming residents,” Ehrlick said. “I’m sure that there are plenty of examples where private searches have gotten great presidents, but I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive.”

Ehrlick said in two past public searches, the open nature “did not harm and in fact in some ways enhanced the search.”

Baldwin said the board’s “strong fiduciary responsibility to find the very best person they possibly could find to run this important state institution,” was part of the reason they chose a confidential process.

Though the university released names this time, the next search could be confidential because of the legislation passed in January — directly in response to the ruling. Now, documents identifying presidential candidates are specifically exempt from the public records law.

“We may have won the battle but lost the war,” Ehrlick said. “The language in the law says they could keep it confidential and we’d have very little recourse.”

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer.