DETROIT, MI — In Ohio, Kent State University recently conducted a presidential search that was so secretive that search committee members have admitted to shredding documents to cover their tracks. “The notes are gone,” one committee member told staff writer Carol Biliczky of the Akron Beacon Journal. “Everything’s been taken care of. We shredded anything with personal data.”
Across the state line in Michigan, both Wayne State University and the University of Michigan have also conducted secret presidential search processes in the past year, announcing the final candidate only at the meeting where the hire was made. That’s not all: At U-M, members of the Board of Regents deliberate on even minor matters in private before holding perfunctory votes in public.
The increasingly closed-door culture of some university boards has frustrated journalists in both states—but it’s also energized them, judging from recent aggressive coverage from several publications that has called out opaque practices and potential legal violations. “They’re starting to act like a corporate board,” says David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press, who has catalogued a startling lack of transparency at U-M in particular. “You wouldn’t have the same standards of scrutiny on a corporate board as on a public board of elected officials. But they are still elected officials of a public university, and there needs to be some public accountability for how they make decisions.” (Disclosure: I’m a U-M alum, and I occasionally contribute articles to the Free Press.)
At Kent State, it’s worth noting that it’s the search process that’s being criticized, not the candidate who was ultimately selected. There appears to be widespread agreement that Beverly Warren, the provost of Virginia Commonwealth University, is well qualified for the job.
Still, the Beacon Journal is not letting the university’s approach go unchallenged. Biliczky’s excellent April 12 story points out that search committee members had to sign confidentiality agreements, and that the private search firm hired by the university had an addendum to its contract that gave it the power to decide what records to make public. The search cost $250,000 of public money, and the university will explain only in general terms how it was spent. The revelations in her story spurred more than two dozen members of the school’s journalism faculty to take out a full-page ad in the student paper saying they were “embarrassed” by the administration’s stance.
Kent State officials told reporters in Ohio that they followed a common approach in their search process, and that they turned over all relevant documents and complied with public records laws.
But Doug Oplinger, managing editor of the Beacon Journal, begs to differ. “They use public money and we believe that this process should be open, as the state law says.”
Ohio law requires documents on employee searches to be made public upon request. As Biliczky’s article notes, “That obligation extends to materials ‘in the sole possession of private search firms used in the hiring process,’ according to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Sunshine Manual.”
Oplinger believes universities like Kent State are trying to take advantage of the relative weakness of newsrooms suffering from cutbacks and declining revenues. “They know newspapers no longer have the money to file lawsuits,” he says. When Kent State hired its outgoing president in a similarly secretive manner, the Beacon Journal prepared to sue. That prompted the university to release the relevant information, rather than go to court. “We assumed they learned their lesson,” Oplinger said. “Obviously, they haven’t.”
Part of the issue is that in Ohio and elsewhere, public institutions like universities are privatizing parts of their operations, including the search for college presidents. That creates situations where university officials can claim that public sunshine laws don’t apply to some material. And, those officials say, some candidates won’t participate in a search that is not confidential.
Kent State is not unique, even in Ohio. The much larger Ohio State University also recently conducted a secretive search for a new president. The Cleveland Plain Dealer (which has a story-sharing agreement with the Beacon Journal) pointed out in an April 28 story that Ohio State’s behind-closed-doors search generated little criticism, though it likely cost considerably more public money than Kent State’s. The Plain Dealer raised similar transparency issues in 2009, when Cleveland State University undertook its presidential search, and again last year when Cuyahoga Community College wouldn’t name the finalists for its president job—until after the paper reported that this stance conflicted with Ohio Supreme Court rulings. Recapping the Cleveland State case in a recent article, reporter Karen Farkas wrote that, “CSU staffers stood watch on the loading dock of the Wolstein Center as [candidates] were sneaked in for meetings with board members, senior staffers and faculty.”