April 2014 podcast: In North Carolina and Ohio, two student editors discuss secret presidential searches

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Secret presidential searches are becoming increasingly common at public colleges and universities around the country. Daniel Moore, editor of The Daily Kent Stater, and Michael Bragg, editor of The Appalachian, joined SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte this month on the podcast to discuss their schools’ recent secret presidential searches.

Frank LoMonte: At the University of Michigan, a trustee wearing a disguise hustles the finalist for president around on a partial tour of the college campus. At Northern Illinois University, members of a search committee meet with the candidate for University president in an airport hanger to make sure that the candidate’s never set foot on the campus where they might be spotted. At Louisiana State University, members of the board of trustees literally dare a state court judge to send them to jail in defiance of an order directing them to turn over the records reflecting the finalists for that college’s presidency. What is going on here? Why are the presidencies of public universities all across America so secretive and why are these searches and selection process increasingly taking place behind closed doors and outside of the public’s view? That’s the topic we’re here to discuss on this month’s Student Press Law Center podcast. 

I’m Frank LoMonte, the Executive Director of the SPLC, and with me are two college editors from Kent State University and Appalachian State University, whose schools have recently been through closed-door presidential searches to talk about what their newspapers have been doing to question and to challenge the secrecy of these selection processes. The Student Press Law Center is a resource for students doing journalism at the college and the high school level and we encourage anyone who’s interested in openness in government and access to public records to check out all of the resources we have at SPLC.org. We’re joined today by Daniel Moore, who’s the editor-in-chief of The Daily Kent Stater at Kent State University in Ohio and Michael Bragg, who’s the editor-in-chief at The Appalachian at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. I should say by disclaimer, Daniel’s also a former journalism intern with us at the Student Press Law Center and both of these gentlemen are finishing out their terms as editor this semester. 

At each institution, they both went through comparable experiences in which the school selected a new president, largely behind closed doors, and without the public being able to examine the finalists or question them or attend any of the search committee meetings. Now this is something that used to be fairly routinely done back in the 1970s and the 1980s, but increasingly, and at times in defiance of state laws which require disclosure, schools are taking these processes off the record, often justifying it by claiming that the best people will not apply if they have to subject themselves to public scrutiny. I’d like to turn this over first, let’s start with Michael Bragg from Appalachian State, and just talk about, what was the process like at Appalachian, how was the search conducted and what level of participation and input did people have on your campus?

Michael Bragg: Well, thank you for having me on Frank, this is Michael. Yeah, at Appalachian State, just to kind of take it back to the very beginning of what happened, in April of 2013, our chancellor Kenneth Peacock, he announced that he would be stepping down from his position as chancellor after nearly 10 years, and that started forming the search committee for our next chancellor. And we’re part of the UNC system here in North Carolina, which is headed by a president, and we have chancellors at each level at each institution. So, they started forming the chancellor’s search over the summer, nothing really substantial was going until about, you know, August, September, when they started finalizing this search committee. And, in October, they made the announcement that the search would be confidential, this level of secrecy where they claim that it would bring in the most qualified candidates who could in confidence basically go from one position at one university and say, “I’m interested in leaving,” and going to another university. That was their reasoning behind it; that it would be done in confidence and we could pull the most qualified and the best candidates for that. 

Shortly after that they announced that it would be a closed search, there were some forums on campus for students and faculty to voice their concerns and opinions to the search committee about what they wanted to see in the University’s next chancellor, and I attended one of these forums, I didn’t ask any questions, but I just kind of attended it just to see what would happen. And it was very one-way communication, nobody on the board, or on the search committee, could speak to the people at the forum. It was simply you walk up to a microphone, say what you wanted to see in the next chancellor at Appalachian State University, you sit down, and the next person would get up and do the exact same thing. 

And members of the search committee actually signed a confidentiality agreement saying that they could not talk about it. The only person who would talk about it was the head of the search committee, who was also in charge of the board of trustees here at Appalachian State University. He was the only person who would speak for the search committee and usually his answers would be limited to one to two sentences. So, not much that you could put into any kind of newspaper article or any updates at all. So, that went on, they would also take online surveys from people, and it could be anyone, students, faculty, staff, alumni, anything like that. You could go on and basically just answer some questions and say what you wanted in the new chancellor and some people have even submitted recommendations of who they thought would be a good person to take the spot. And then in February they announced that the final three candidates had been selected and then that was narrowed down to two, because the other one took a job somewhere else, is what we were told. And then, shortly after spring break in March, they announced our new chancellor, Sheri Noren Everts, and that’s where we are right now as far as the process of the search.

Frank LoMonte: And so when they were announcing that they were down to three candidates or then two candidates, they weren’t telling you the names of the candidates, right? They were just telling you the numbers at that point.

Michael Bragg: Correct. And that was really the only announcement that made the public as far as how they had narrowed down their pool of applicants and then their final candidates, so they never gave names, at all. In the process, the only name that they released to the public was the final choice.

Frank LoMonte: Right, right. So, Daniel at Kent State I guess describe the process that went down there and also, if you can, a little bit about what your reporters tried to do to get passed this veil of secrecy surrounding the search.

Daniel Moore: Sure, well, Michael it sounds like we had very similar searches. Our president, current president, Lester Lefton, actually announced his retirement April of 2013, as well, and that’s when our search got under way. The official search began in August, that’s when the committee was formed and they signed a contract with the private firm, Storbeck/Pimentel, which seems to be a common theme with presidential searches that wish to remain private. So, during the search process, which lasted until January, one public forum was held in which the public was invited to share opinions, like it sounds like it happened at Appalachian State. Except they held it in August the week before students and faculty arrived on campus, and they only held one. And so it was pretty ridiculous because no one showed up to that forum, and so to date, they haven’t had an open forum for students and faculty when they were actually on campus. And so the process was very private in every sense of the word. Meetings were closed, they brought no candidates to campus, no one on the committee besides the chair would speak to us and as of today we still don’t know any of the names of the people they considered, other than Beverly Warren. 

Now even more importantly I think than our desire to know who the committee considered and the desire to be a part of the process to help select the president of the institution, you know, I think beyond that, now it becomes a matter of, you know, how is the money spent for us? There’s $250,000 of public money that was spent and the revelations recently for us, so that those documents were destroyed by the private search firm, who was in charge of maintaining the records and that’s when our reporting and the reporting of other local news outlet here has come into play, they’ve called into question the financial aspects of the search from an auditing perspective. How do we know this money was spent correctly? So, during the fall we closely followed this search and submitted public records requests for applications and nominations. And the committee had an interesting tactic, in contrast with your situation, Michael, they never came out and announced that they were gonna keep it private. That was something that I picked up on as being an SPLC intern in the past and knowing what happened at LSU and kind of knowing the trend of higher education searches, I had a sense that that’s what they were going to try to do, but we put in our public records request and they never denied it, because a denial would be a solid basis for more public uproar. 

What they did was simply saying we’re collecting your records, the records are in the hands of the private firm and I kind of had the presence of mind that they were kind of just dragging their feet. And Frank we talked in the fall about this, it was really hard because it wasn’t a slam dunk case, and the University was dragging their feet, and it was hard during the process to do much reporting on the process because they hadn’t come out and said that they were going to keep it private all the way until the end. Now, we know now from the records that we have, that they did sign a confidentiality clause, but they never came out an announced that. So, during the fall, we were able to do reporting on how the community was perceiving the search, we requested the online recommendations from the public, you know the search committee had an online form set up to solicit recommendations on what they wanted to see in a president. So we did our minor reporting on that, but now, it’s funny almost recently it’s blown up again, because of the news that they’ve shredded documents, they’ve shredded notes, all of the documents are basically gone, and so that calls into question, you know, this financial question of how do you audit this? How do you know that the money was properly spent? So, we’ve been doing a lot of reporting lately alongside the Akron Beacon Journal, on how this money was spent and how do we know it was spent properly.

Frank LoMonte: All right. And that highlights a couple points that are worth mentioning. First of all, you mentioned the role of private search firms in these processes and increasingly, these searches are being privatized in effect, they’re being turned over to people who do this for a living, who maintain a stable of potential candidates and a bank of resumes and they just call names from their bank of resumes and submit them to a committee that’s usually comprised of some campus insiders, some members of the trustees, maybe some faculty, some staff, maybe a student leader or two, but the pool itself is not generally gathered from people who have nominated themselves or who have applied, it’s people who have agreed to have their resumes listed with one of these handful of headhunting firms and, as Daniel mentioned, the tab for these headhunting firms when you add in all of the costs associated with the search can easily run, at the University of Michigan recently, was estimated at $320,000, so they can certainly run into the six figures, but that’s an opportunity at a public university, at least, for requesting records related to the expenditure on the search, including the contract and the terms of the contract with the search firm, which is something that everybody should be thinking about, asking for. And that’s the other point worth highlighting is even if you can’t uncover the identity of the individuals that are under consideration, there are ways, and Daniel and The Kent Stater did a real good job within the limits of cooperation within their institution, and at least covering the process and keeping people informed of the process, including the secrecy of the process and reminding people of what they were not being told. Let me go back to Michael, then, and your paper decided to do something really rather bold during this process and that was to devote the entire front page of The Appalachian to an editorial calling for openness. Tell us about the editorial and about how the decision was made to do something that extraordinary with your front page.

Michael Bragg: Yeah, absolutely. So that front-page editorial ran January 16, that was our first issue back from winter break, the first issue of the spring semester. What we had kind of noticed, like I said earlier in October, I believe it was October 15, at least mid-October when they decided to make the search closed; there wasn’t really much student reaction to that. And we at the time, we really didn’t think that it was going to be something that could cause us so much trouble, but you know, as we started going through that semester trying to get any information, any updates on how the search was going, we were getting absolutely nothing. And the more I looked into it, the more I felt like this just wasn’t something that you could do at a public institution. 

You talked about how much they spent at Kent State to look for the next president. They spent, we recently just got copies of the finances here at Appalachian State, and they spent quite a bit of money on travel, on the search consultant, on the airport interview in Charlotte, N.C., which is about two hours away from campus. I mean, all of this was going on and the more we realized that this could be happening, we started to get a little more frustrated, me especially. So we just kind of started looking into what our options were to get this information, in North Carolina, with public records laws, it’s a little vague and yes we could’ve done a FOIA request to get this information, but we decided that that would’ve taken a long time, it might not have been the best option for something like this. So after talking with, I talked to Frank a few times, during the winter break just to get his take on what’s going on with these closed searches, on the national level, what are the trends, what tends to be happening with things like this, and I spoke with some professors here who kind of have some expertise in that. I consulted with my adviser frequently on what we should do. 

And when I had the idea of the front-page editorial, I ran that by my adviser, talked to her about it, and you know, “Is this something that you could easily do?” And she was on board for it. And I was actually inspired by what The Daily Tar Heel out of UNC Chapel Hill has done. I believe it was last year, when they devoted an entire front-page editorial to sexual assault on college campuses. And when I first saw that, I thought it was just incredible that, one, they would have the courage and just the audacity to do something like this, I thought that was remarkable. But also, it sent a very clear message that something that was happening that wasn’t really talked about was suddenly put in the spotlight because of something like this, because of the move that a student newspaper decided to do. So after I had worked on the editorial and kind of a concept of what the front page would look like, I ran it by my editorial board, they were all for it, and we decided that we would make a statement by saying, you know, no one’s really talking about this, students aren’t really reacting to this, even though we’ve heard some students concerned about it, the faculty was not happy with it at all, and you know, local media wasn’t really covering this issue as much and we at The Appalachian, we were guilty ourselves of that prior semester not really talking about it. So this was our way of, look, this is the problem, we are requesting some openness in this search, and in the editorial we just called for we want to know the names of the final three candidates, that is what we want at this point, just to have some openness and some trust at this University.

Frank LoMonte: And, of course, it didn’t wind up that the University responded by changing their tactic and opening the search, but that’s not to say that you didn’t get some reaction from the campus and from the larger community. What sort of reaction did you receive?

Michael Bragg: Yeah, like you said, they did not open the search up and we kind of expected that, that was more just this is what we want. I think we even acknowledged it in the text of the editorial thing. Look, we know this isn’t going to happen, so this is our call for last minute transparency. As far as the reaction goes, there wasn’t as large of a student reaction as we were hoping for, it was shared around social media quite a bit, I had people walk up to me and comment on, “Hey that was a very bold move, we thought this was really interesting,” things like that, but nothing really huge from the student body. Faculty, however, seemed to be more interested that we decided to do something like this, because I have not met a single faculty member here who is on board with a closed search, because looking at it in their perspective, they’re going to be here, ideally, they would like to be here longer than we are. We’ll be here for four, five years at the most, so this is where they’re trying to invest their career and basically they didn’t have a say in who their new boss was going to be, if you look at it that way.

Frank LoMonte: Sure.

Michael Bragg: But, the faculty was very appreciative of what we did, I actually saw quite a few faculty members tape the front page on their office doors, including a member of the search committee, who was in favor of an open search, so that was pretty good to see something like that.

Frank LoMonte: Yeah!

Michael Bragg: Our community had a pretty good reaction, as well. Again, it was kind of like the students, it wasn’t very big and then a FOX affiliate out of Charlotte, N.C., actually about a month later, picked up the story and talked to myself and the managing editor, who is actually going to be editor-in-chief next year. They talked to us about it a little bit, too.

Frank LoMonte: Well, let’s ask Daniel more about Kent State’s. So your editors also made a pretty extraordinary decision to go out front, which those who know journalism know to take an opinion column out front is a really strong statement and an unusual statement to go out after the search. But as you were saying, as these disclosures are starting to come to light of some of the irregularities surrounding the search, where you’ve got search committee members coming forward and admitting that they’ve destroyed or shredded their notes, or that the search firm has done it for them to make sure that these public records never fall into the hands of the public, so tell us what you wrote, why you decided to do it, and then like Michael, what sort of response or reaction you’ve seen around campus.

Daniel Moore: Sure and yeah, I agree, few things call for a front-page editorial, but this is one that everybody was on board for this. It’s funny because the search that found current President Lefton was as private, as well. And without getting too political, there have been many times through his eight years that his actions were called into question by students, that students protested, that if students had been given input during his search, I suspect that the University would’ve taken that into account. And it’s kind of funny to look at Beverly Warren’s personality with students and outreach to students as a complete 180 from President Lefton’s personality. And think, why did they select somebody who they know now wasn’t the best with students, rather than give an opportunity to get input and select somebody more maybe akin to Beverly Warren eight years ago. And, you know, it’s the principle of the matter, and I just wonder if we could’ve gotten a better candidate with an open process and ironically, that’s kind of the opposite position that people take with keeping the search closed. They argue that you get a broader pool of candidates if the process is closed. But if you look at the difference between the candidates, over eight years, it couldn’t be more different. So, during the fall, I was not editor, but I think that it was just never clear that the process was going to remain private, and I think that with the recent disclosures, it’s a state-wide story, it’s a national story. I think that The Washington Post should pick up on what’s happening. They shredded public documents and that’s unheard of. This is a $250,000 of public money and if there was any more prominent placement than front page, I would’ve done that too. I think it just goes to show that this is the trend in higher education and it’s my fear that it will become a trend in other areas of public governance, not only schools, but other public institutions that if we don’t raise a voice on this, then it will become a green light for them to do it, too. And our editorial was published just last Monday, and it was called “The Worst Public Transparency Crisis Since the Last Time Around.”

And, obviously not enough was done after that search, or not enough was done after other private presidential searches to prevent this from happening again. And that’s where we found ourselves. Trying to prevent this from happening again and the worst possible outcome, other agencies of government. And our editorial got a lot of positive feedback, but the editorial was written for the people that are in a position of power, we’re talking about the student and faculty members that were on the search committee, the administrators at the University, President Lefton, President-elect Warren. I mean these are people that are in a position to change things, but aren’t speaking up and they aren’t doing it. And the editorial was written for those who are in a position to act and are in a position to publically voice their opposition and remain silent. And, our journalism faculty here, took out a full page ad the day after the editorial, and simply said “we’re embarrassed,” that was the two words at the top of the ad, and I’m really proud of them, I’m really happy with the letter, and I’m really proud of my school for doing it. I wish more would’ve signed on, because this isn’t a fringe issue, this isn’t an issue that only one part of the journalism faculty should be interested in. This is an issue that every single person who cares about open government should be angry about, and quite frankly, embarrassed about. For our professors, and this is me speaking, but for our professors, it’s embarrassing, I think, to be teaching at a school that is breaking the law that you teach to students, that you tell students exist to help them become better journalists. And it is embarrassing. There was a lot of talk about using the word “embarrassed” or running the editorial, but I think that in this instance, when you have something of this magnitude, when you’ve got the fear in the back of your head that this could happen again, it’s happened in the past, I think it calls for as much as you can do from a journalism perspective.

Frank LoMonte: Well, we need to wrap up our conversation, but invite folks to visit the SPLC.org website to learn more about the law governing presidential searches. We’ve got a post on the SPLC blog that reproduces the front page from The Appalachian that contains the front-page editorial that Michael Bragg and his staff put together calling for greater openness in their presidential search. And we’ll certainly be using the SPLC.org news flashes to follow the development at Kent State and the still unfolding, interesting legal controversy over a state where the records should have been made public, but have not been and apparently will not be, since they’ve been destroyed. So let’s say thank you to Michael Bragg from The Appalachian and Daniel Moore from The Daily Kent Stater for joining us. We hope anyone who has a question about their entitlement to public records under their state law will contact the Student Press Law Center, SPLC.org is the website. Our email is splc@splc.org. We also hope each of you will be vigilant in your own state legislature about attempts to roll back public records laws to take presidential searches off the records. We are following legislation like this right now in Florida, stay tuned for all those updates on the SPLC.org website. Please join us next month on our podcast. Thanks for listening.