Wednesday, October 24, 2012

An Open Process

Surely the most important responsibility facing the EKU Board of Regents is the selection of the university’s next president. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Chairperson Gary Abney kept his search and screening committee close; essentially a set of white Regents and best buddies.

“We need a clear outline of what we wish this university to become over the next decade,” Abney wrote to the Eastern community. He’s right, and that direction can only come from the Regents.

Perhaps nothing is more important to faculty than understanding what the Regents are looking for. Are we looking for a president who will preserve the Essential Eastern and our historical mission as a school of opportunity? Or are we looking for a president who will change that mission and remake the university into a new kind of 21st century institution? Will the next president be a politician, a scholar, or something else?

Changes in higher education prompted by Senate Bill 1 have already altered the nature of presidential leadership in the state. The Council on Postsecondary Education has redefined what it means to be a successful university. Declining state support and enrollment have made EKU more dependent upon tuition and our next president must be responsive to a new set of pressures. The leadership provided by the Regents on this crucial decision will determine whether we are a forward-looking institution, or not.

To his credit, Abney promised an open process which would involve representatives of all major stakeholders. But then the Regents chose to keep secret the names of the search firms that bid on EKU’s RFP—a decision that while legal, did not contribute to openness, was not required by law, and prevented the faculty from sharing useful and potentially important information with the Regents (08-ODR-144).

The Regents’ selection of Academic Search--one of higher education’s most prominent firms--seems solid. But the campus would benefit from some reassurance following last year’s exodus of a number of their top consultants due to “philosophical differences” as the company transitioned from a nonprofit into a for-profit organization. Inside Higher Ed reported that Academic Search was known for hiring former college presidents who work remotely with a central support staff (June 23, 2011).

Maybe there’s nothing to worry about, but it is difficult to see how keeping secret the names of vendors served the best interests of EKU. Serving the interest of one’s search firm is a bad habit to form--and a tough one to break--especially if the search and screening committee lacks the researchers necessary to fully vet candidates and validate the reports of the search firm. Absent that crucial component, the screening committee will quickly find itself at the mercy of Academic Search because they will possess all of the information.

Kentucky has suffered under this kind of circumstance before. In 2007, the Kentucky Board of Education found itself handcuffed when my blog Kentucky School News and Commentary and the Bluegrass Policy blog uncovered numerous false claims being made by the person selected to become Kentucky’s Education Commissioner. Since the Board had effectively outsourced its responsibilities to the search firm, and had not conducted any independent vetting, they were not in a position to rebut the firm‘s assurances that all was well. But all was not well. Under increasing pressure from the publication of a growing list of falsifications, the Board asked the search firm to look into the matter. But their “research” was limited to the candidate’s references. They did not seek out contrary opinions or facts. Ultimately, the Commissioner-select resigned before taking office and the Board sued the search firm. Working with a different search firm in 2009, the Kentucky School Board was considering one finalist until Kentucky School News and Commentary published a creationist paper from the candidate’s past that the search firm didn’t know about.

No matter what the search firm does--or does not do--it is the Regents who remain responsible for the selection of Eastern’s 12th president. The search and screening committee would greatly benefit from a few faculty researchers who might be called upon to discretely vet the top candidates and advise the committee before the Regents make any public announcement about finalists. It might go a long way toward breaking down any misperceptions that the process is insular, thus building confidence among the faculty, which is crucial to the next president’s success.


Anonymous said...

I would be inclined to go even further if your examples are indicative of the lack of candidate research offered by these headhunters. I am betting that $100,000 could be better spend at home with a group of our own folks recruiting and researching.

As much as these positions are publically trumpeted as being transparent, in reality they never are. In the end, this decision will be made by two or three powerbrokers at the highest decision making level.

I too am interested in the vision which the Regents hopefully share about EKU's future identity/role. Seems like we went from one environment of international asperations with heavy handed, topdown control to one of stability based in past identities and values without much understanding of what future post secondary education is becoming.

I wish we would bring on a young, dynamic leader who could lead the charge in transforming this univeristy into something which is ahead of the curve instead of either being behind the curve or insulated in a historical identity which is no longer sustainable.

Richard Day said...

Good points…all.

I think search firms are helpful and at their best, probably worth the money. Having established systems in place to handle the screening of a large number of applicants, mailings, setting up meetings….there’s a lot of busy work.

I just think they should not be blindly trusted to always act in the best interest of the client. That, in my mind, is not due diligence.

I doubt there can really be full transparency with the applicant pool, but neither is that necessary. We really don’t need to know who the bottom candidates were who didn’t progress through the process. But I do think it is very important for finalists (plural) to be announced. Otherwise, it becomes this ruse, where the committee trots a single finalist around campus selling them, rather than gathering input that might affect the outcome.

I sense a growing unrest among the faculty but it’s hard to tell if it will turn into anything. Most folks complain but stop short of doing anything else. But I believe most faculty members would feel better if they felt that they had a few folks they trust who monitor the process form the inside.

The Regents vision is, of course, key to all of this.

To be honest, I don’t have a particular type of finalist in mind. I don’t have an opinion on the rumored insiders…and like them both personally. I am more interested in ferreting out unsuitable candidates who may have significant faults. If the Regents know all of the pros and cons and they decide on someone with a blemish or two, then they have made an informed decision. What I object to, and have reason to fear, is that the Regents themselves (as highfalutin’ board members, none of whom have ever done this sort of thing before…so far as I know) will not do the hard work required to vet candidates, and that the search firm won’t do extensive research either, and we end up getting sold someone who may not be as advertised. That would be a shame.

Thanks for the comment.