Last fall the EKU Board of Regents began planning for the selection of the school’s 12th president. The crucial first step was to hire a search firm and outline what we were looking for in a new president. In glorious terms, the Regents cast the net wide looking to snag a leader who was inspirational, engaging, and charismatic; a compelling communicator who was committed to academic excellence, student success, shared governance, and inclusion. We “preferred” a terminal degree, but were flexible on that point. The search produced sixty-nine applicants.
For the past two weeks the campus has had the opportunity to research, meet, and question an uneven set of three finalists. If considerations of the next president were limited to the ability to sustain an interesting conversation over the course of a brief interview, then clearly, all three finalists passed the test. One imagines that community members who only met the three could reasonably come away believing that all three men were up to the task. But for those who select their employees (or presidents) according to more rigorous criteria, differences among the finalists show that one is well-qualified, one is qualified, and, in my opinion, one is unacceptable and should never have been made a finalist.
Many faculty and staff members have raised questions about the inclusion of Gregg Lassen as a finalist. The Chairs Association and the Faculty Senate Executive Committees (minus Sheila Pressley and Malcom Frisbie who sit on the selection committee) are recommending that Lassen be removed from consideration. Comments from random faculty members on this blog reflect the general sentiment heard on campus, “How much did we pay the search firm to find this guy for us?” “What were the ‘set of skills’ that impressed the search firm.” “I am not even going to waste my time going to his forums during the visit. What a waste of time and money.” Walking out of yesterday’s open session with Dr. Shao I overheard a couple of members of the staff: Re: Shao, “At least he gave direct answers to the questions.” “That last guy (Lassen) was terrible.” “He just beat around the bush.”
In these days of politics, accountability, and blame, folks have been conditioned to look for a culprit whenever things go wrong. And Lassen is being seen as a wrong choice. Somebody’s reputation ought to be a bit tarnished by the process - but whose?
Despite repeated warnings about the necessity of the Search Committee spending the time it takes conducting its own due diligence – that the search firm could not be counted on to deliver on its promise of fully vetting the finalists – faculty were largely dismissed with the assurance that the search committee would handle things appropriately. Yet, despite his significant blemishes, Lassen became a finalist and Search Committee members appeared surprised when the faculty did not embrace him.
That the committee seemed surprise is telling, but I’m uncertain what it tells. But the committee members know the truth. The question is, “What did the Search Committee know, and when did they know it?”
When the search committee selected Lassen as a finalist, were the members aware that he...
- began his political life as a Republican, ran for Congress in Texas as a Libertarian, and ran for governor in Utah as a Democrat
- that during his Congressional campaign he called for slashing the federal budget and “letting the free market take over education, health care, and other basic services.”
- that a lack of attention to important details led to an embarrassing episode in Utah when Lassen gathered his family, party officials, and local news media to witness his filing to run for governor, only to learn (apparently on camera) that he had failed to discover, or meet, the residency requirement.
- that Lassen completed his Ph.D. in political science and international affairs while at the University of Southern Mississippi, under a controversial set of circumstances. (He was apparently the boss of the guy who served as his committee chair and who accepted his dissertation - all while USM's whole business program was in the SACS doghouse and routinely referred to as a diploma mill.) Further, the acid test for the Ph. D. is an academically defensible dissertation, and as KSN&C readers are aware from Dr. Greg Gunderson’s dismantling of it, Lassen’s scholarship did not measure up.
- that he previously held VP Finance positions at University of Texas at Tyler, and the University of Southern Mississippi where he and some close associates who followed each other from school to school came under fire from faculty for allegedly engaging in what the faculty called daily assaults on academic freedom, academic tenure, and faculty governance.
- that Lassen swept departmental money into a centralized accounts that he managed
- that Lassen’s inclinations toward privatization of certain educational functions included a proposal to outsource physical plant operations.
- that Lassen was recently passed over for the presidency of Lamar University
If the committee was aware of this stuff, and in their wisdom, selected Lassen as a finalist anyway, then the process worked as it should have, and any blame should fall on the Regents and the Search Committee.
But if the committee was unaware of these issues, (we have been told they were not aware of everything) and might not have chosen Lassen as a finalist if they had known - then one must question whether the search firm (Academic Search) really did what they promised to do, and what the Regents needed them to do.
Academic Search told the campus that they had a team of researchers. We know from having done the work that any credible researcher (not to mention the average amateur web browser) would have discovered doubtful material on Lassen very quickly.
It is not our desire to be unfair to Dr. Lassen (or as Greg Gunderson suggestively wrote, Mr. Lassen). But this is not a court of law, and it is not in EKU’s best interest to ignore legitimate concerns because they have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. EKU is selecting a president and Lassen has no right to the position. Rather, it is incumbent upon the Search Committee, and ultimately the Regents, to select from only the most qualified candidates. If for no other reason than Lassen’s qualifications fall well short of the other two finalists, the Regents must not choose him to lead the school.
Consider the qualifications of CPE Vice President Aaron Thompson who in this field of finalists would only be rivaled by Michael Benson (but who, we hear, was dismissed without so much as an interview because the committee decided not to consider anyone from Kentucky, for reasons we don’t understand. Was there some thought that that was the best way to avoid the outgoing Murray president, or some rogue Provost? Was that the means for taking Kentucky politicians out of the equation?). Love Thompson or hate him – the idea that Lassen made the finals and Thompson didn’t even get an interview is a rejection of objective decision-making, or a lack of vetting, or worse.
So have EKU and Academic Search conducted a successful search? That remains to be seen.
The co-dependent relationship between the Search Committee and Academic Search has proved to be something less than perfect, but I would be surprised if the two did not continue to support one another. In my dreams, Regent's Chair Craig Turner would call Academic Search on the carpet for their shortcomings - since it appears the committee was not made aware of the breadth of Lassen's problems. But the way these things usually work is that they are "in it together" and want nothing more than to be able to claim that a successful search produced a positive direction for the university in the future. Smiles all round.
This could still be a successful search. If the Regents choose a president with a track record of excellence in the job we are asking him to perform, our prospects brighten. Otherwise, who knows?