Secrecy becoming name of game

The Education Beat

Chancellor: Many candidates vying to head colleges won't consider the position if the search is conducted publicly.

January 26, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WHEN MARY Sue Coleman left the presidency of the University of Iowa in August to lead the University of Michigan, she announced that she wouldn't have sought the job had Michigan's search been conducted in the sunshine of public scrutiny.

Coleman's attitude is becoming the rule rather than the exception in the great game of college presidential searches, and it explains why Towson University is bound to make half the world angry as it attempts - again - to lure a nationally recognized star to the helm of Maryland's second-largest public university.

The problem is that open searches often don't attract the best people, while closed searches anger students, faculty, the news media and others who care about the First Amendment and how public money is spent.

The irony is that the better-qualified the person, the less he or she needs the job.

Disclosure rules vary widely around the country, from Florida's famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) sunshine laws to flimsy open-meetings laws in other states that allow searches to be conducted entirely in secrecy. Maryland is one of those states.

News reporters complain that even in states with strong disclosure and open-meetings laws, the folks doing the hiring find ways to get around the rules - or the candidates themselves come up with ingenious solutions. Texas is required to make public the names of its finalists for top public university jobs. So when Mark G. Yudof moved from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, to the chancellorship of the University of Texas System last year, he insisted on being the only finalist. Otherwise, he said, forget it. That made it easy.

Replacing Yudof at Minnesota with Robert H. Bruininks, an insider, wasn't so easy. The search was conducted secretly, and, again, Bruininks was the only finalist. On the day of his appointment, the state's major news outlets filed suit, maintaining the search violated Minnesota's open-meetings laws. (Officials arrogantly maintained that, technically, the university isn't a state agency.)

Florida's sunshine laws are considered disastrous by those who think they discourage most sitting presidents or chancellors from offering themselves. "Good people just aren't going to commit themselves under those circumstances," says James Fisher, a retired Towson University president who runs a higher-education consulting firm.

Reporters in Tallahassee, Fla., told me that the finalists for the presidency of Florida State University, filled last month, were announced ahead of time. But they said officials kept much of the search process secret by keeping records in the office of the headhunter hired to help find good candidates.

"In Florida presidential searches, the big dogs don't come out until the last minute," said one reporter.

Occasionally - but only occasionally - leaked news of a candidacy pays off for the candidate. That happened to Robert L. Caret, who backed out of consideration for the Towson presidency in December three days before the job was to be offered. Caret, a former Towson provost and professor, decided to stay as president of San Jose State University after officials of the California school upped the ante.

But that's a dangerous game to play. Usually, unless the candidate is in deep trouble, there's hell to pay if word leaks out that he or she is job-hunting.

And at Towson, the chances are extremely high that word will leak out. The university is trying to compromise by conducting a "modified open" or "modified closed" search. The list of candidates the search committee is interviewing is secret, although reportedly the field has been narrowed to eight. At the end of the process, finalists will be exposed to a group of about 25 representing all campus constituencies. These people, too, will be sworn to secrecy.

Jim Clements, an amiable computer and information sciences professor who heads the search, concedes that there's "no way to satisfy every camp." And he isn't optimistic that at the end of the process - in about a month, if all goes well - the 65 people (including 15 University of Maryland regents) who will know of the finalists will keep the names secret.

Still, Clements says, the vow of confidentiality "has produced a very strong candidate pool" of nearly 100. About 20 are sitting presidents or chancellors, and Clements says the pool would be much smaller without the vow of confidentiality.

"In our hearts, we want to make [the process] open," Clements says, "but no private business the size of Towson University would make a search for president an exercise in pure democracy."

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