Thursday, April 11, 2013

Surprising Post Script

So, I walked into a colleague's office the other day and heard the strangest thing.

It turns out that an associate of my colleague's works at the College of Charleston with Alan Shao. Shao was a finalist for the EKU presidency that was awarded last Friday to Michael Benson. This associate of my colleague's says she was told that EKU offered the position to Shao before it was offered to Benson!?

The way the story goes, Shao allegedly told a number of folks in Charleston that EKU offered him the job but insisted that his wife reside in Richmond. According to the story, Shao did not want to agree to that because his son will be a senior in high school in Charleston next year.

Then yesterday, I got a quick note from a friend of mine in Charleston, who innocently wrote, "Congrats on the new president - what do you think of him? I heard you offered it to our guy but he turned you down - Who did you favor?"

My first thought was, "Holy Cow, Dr. Shao! What's up with this?"

My second thought was, "Could it possibly be true?"

I was in the room - somewhere around 12:15pm last Friday - when immediately following a unanimous vote of the Board of Regents, Chairman Craig Turner called Michael Benson and offered him the position. But, I've witnessed enough shenanigans over the years to maintain a healthy skepticism of public boards. Is it possible that the Regents, at some time earlier in the morning, decided on Shao, called him to talk turkey, but could not come to terms? Naw. It just didn't ring true in this case. Maybe if there had been a strong movement toward Shao...but that's just not how it felt on campus. To be sure, there was support for Shao among some of the faculty, but there was no compelling motivation for any kind of subterfuge. In fact, the thing I'm most convinced of in the whole process is that the Regents wanted a clean, uncontentious process that left them with one best candidate and a new president with a mandate for change, and some means for accomplishing it.

Fortunately, the faculty had two people in the joint meeting of the Search Committee and Regents, all morning who would have known for sure. I wrote to Faculty Regent Malcolm Frisbie and Faculty Senate President Sheila Pressley: "Can I print, without fear of contradiction from the committee, that at no time, was Shao offered the position of president?" Sheila said, "that's definitely the offer was made." Mal said, "We did not offer the job to Alan Shao. Mike Benson was (and is!) our first choice."

Chairman Turner told KSN&C: "Alan Shao was a finalist and will be a great president one day. As chair I communicated the same opportunities and expectations to all finalists. The Board of Regents unanimously offered the presidency to one candidate, Dr. Michael Benson. It's time to move forward. The Board of Regents and President Benson have many things to concentrate on regarding the future of Eastern. That is where our focus is and will remain. Dr. Benson is anxious to get started and we are excited about the direction and change he will bring to Eastern."

Under normal circumstances, this would be the kind of thing one would let pass. I don't think there was any reason for Shao - a dean who was well-received on campus, but who lost out to a sitting president with an impressive resume of his own - to be embarrassed. But we've all been there. We've all competed for some prize and fallen short, only to rationalize our defeat with a few face-saving comments. My best guess is that that's what happened.

In the old days, comments pretty much stayed where you put them. But in the 21st century, they take on a life of their own, and Shao's alleged comments made it back to Richmond. The problem is, this kind of rumor could have the potential, if true, to weaken support for the new president by making Benson appear to be a second choice. I don't see any reason why the EKU community should be OK with that.

In fact, Dr Shao wouldn't really want that either. Shao told KSN&C that "EKU is a great university and I'm confident that President Benson will take it to even greater heights." Dr. Shao asked that I not "start anything controversial that can potentially inhibit President Benson's effectiveness at EKU. He will do outstanding things if given the opportunity to do so." But one wonders if Shao's concerns really lie elsewhere. 

I reminded him that no one at EKU started anything. This rumor came to us and, based on what I've learned, my intention was to end it. If anything, this little episode further solidifies in my mind that the Regents made the right call when Benson was selected.

Shao's statement on the specifics of the rumor was limited to this: "With regard to my personal matters, I have no further comment."


Anonymous said...

Despite your stated intentions, I don't think you did a very good job of ending the rumor in this post. It almost seems like you developed a personal grudge based on secondhand accounts and innuendo. It's really disappointing, because you do such a good job on other topics. You're better than this "he said/she said" stuff, and I hope you can move on too.

A thoughtful and critical assessment of Benson's early days would be appreciated by the entire community. You're in a unique position to provide it, and I hope that you do. I'm willing to give the new prez a chance, but healthy skepticism has a place in these difficult times.

Richard Day said...

Thanks for the comment. I understand your point.

In this case, I would say that it was a close call even to post the story. I can tell you that the sources for the rumor, while unnamed (for reasons easily guessed), are in a position to know what happened, and are known to me; or in one case, known to my colleague. In some cases, that even includes folks who provided very positive background information on Shao during the initial I dismiss the idea that they had a grudge. As for me, the readers can judge for themselves. I can assure you that it's "just business" from my perspective, but I don't hold out any hope that my statement is convincing to anyone other than long-time readers.

I made the deliberate decision not to pass on the story because the alternative would have left hanging around campus this vague notion that Benson might not have truly been the Regent's first choice. I believe that sort of thing can weaken a president - so I stomped on it. I do think that refutation was nailed down with appropriate journalistic attribution. Sorry it was not more convincing.

Thank you for the idea on Benson's early days, but my immediate plan is to turn to a new research project on the state of college readiness in Kentucky high schools as told by EKU students. That collaborative research project has been put on the back burner for about a month now, and it's time to bring it forward.

Believe it or not, EKU is not my usual beat, but I made a special exception for the presidential search. I have no plans to second-guess Benson's decisions nor to become a persistent pariah for Lassen or Shao. I will have no trouble moving on. Go in peace, all.

Richard Day said...

...but I might take one more swing at Academic Search before I pack it in.

Anonymous said...

This makes it sound like you are trying to throw Shao under the bus. Before you state certain things or even bring this information up you should know the facts.. not the he said she said game. Of course EKU would want Benson to think he is the unanimous decision and their first choice. They will stick by that until the end, but that's politics. Who would ever want to come in as the second choice. I do not believe Shao would make something like that up, he has no reason to. What about the fact that there could have been people with him when the call was made that would also know the truth. I'm pretty sure he told those close to him the truth as he should, he has no reason to lie-- but EKU obviously would.

Richard Day said...

Let me be clear. Based on the facts as I know them; based on long-standing relationships with individuals who have always provided trustworthy information and research; based on the fact that these sources are in a position to know what really happened in Richmond and Charleston, and because most of them are on the record by name, it is my studied opinion that Shao belongs under the bus.

This isn’t simply he said, she said. Shao and the Regents are public figures who are on the record.

It is because I believe Malcolm and Sheila (who are on the record) that I believe Craig (who is on the record). It is because I was in the room during the Regents vote (which is on the record) and the phone call offering Benson the position and perceived no nervousness, furtive glances, or anything else that might prompt suspicion of the Regents that I believe the Regents can be trusted on this. But because of my natural suspicions, I still checked it out. But I don’t deny facts, and the facts demand certain conclusions - Benson was the one and only choice.

It is because I trust my Charleston friend who knows first-hand that the “rumor” exists (at least as high as the vice presidential level) at Charleston, and because I trust my colleague, whose source heard the comment being made, that I believe the comment was made. But because of my natural suspicions, I still checked it out with Shao. I asked him directly to tell us who called him and when. (There was only a narrow period of time when it could have occurred, which is more evidence that it didn’t occur.) Shao couldn’t, or wouldn’t say who called him, or when. Instead, he said “no further comment.”

If you know Shao, or have spent time with him, and have some insights into his personality, please tell us who you are and what you know about it. But it is a very human foible to want to save face. We've seen it a million times.

You are certainly entitled to your own opinions and any anti-Benson biases you may harbor. But I’m not looking to get sued, and I’ll try my best to verify and/or source whatever I write here and use a rational basis for my decision-making.

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

I overheard in the grocery line from someone who is the neighbor of Dr. Whitlock's daughter that he doesn't shine his shoes as often as he did before announcing his retirement.

Come on, who cares? I feel like we are discussing old women's gossip on a partyline. Whether Shao was offered the position or not doesn't matter because either he wasn't or he turned it down. Either way Benson is our president now. Do you really think that politics and behind the scenes deals were not a part of any of our other presidents' selction (or other external administrators for that matter.)?

Anonymous said...

In my humble opinion, the new president is hired, and the Board of Regents needs to back off, take their hands off the steering wheel, and let someone who really knows how to run a university, and not a business, Mr. Turner, assume command. The Board of Regents has already done enough. Now go back to your businesses and leave EKU alone.

Anonymous said...

I do know Shao... And I will say, I know everything that happened. I will also say, Shao would never make a big deal about anything like this as he likes to stay as far away from drama as possible. He would not be happy to hear someone he knows is spending time responding to something like this, but I feel the need to defend him as I know what happened, and he does not deserve to have an article like this written about him that is not true.

I would just be careful to defame someone unless you witnessed what happened... Because there are people who did.. on Shao's side.

Richard Day said...

April 12, 2013 at 9:12 PM: Great. Now if you would be kind enough to re-post your comment with your name attached, our readers can better gauge your comment. Thanks.