As Warren prepares to depart, a search begins

Kent State President-Elect Dr. Beverly Warren speaks to the public and the Board of Trustees in the Rockwell Hall atrium Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, after the board meeting that confirmed as the universities 12th president. Warren will take over for President Lester Lefton in July.

Laina Yost

When Kent State named Beverly Warren the university’s 12th president in 2014, it was her first public appearance on any of the school’s campuses. Minutes before, she was introduced inside Rockwell Hall to a few members of Faculty Senate, who were called the night before to attend an “urgent meeting” of an undisclosed nature.

The meeting turned out to be the senators’ only introduction to Warren, who was whisked away to her public debut as president following a few minutes of conversation.

“(The board) took her away without even asking our opinion (on Warren),” said Donald White, then-vice chair of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee and current mathematical science professor. “The meeting with her was strictly a formality.

Warren’s hiring followed months of work by 17 search committee members, all of whom signed codes of conduct that required their silence, among other conditions, about the list of candidates who applied for the vacancy.

This closed presidential search process, led by private firm Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, cost the university around $250,000 and was met with criticism on many fronts, including in Kent State’s student press.

In an editorial following Warren’s hiring, The Daily Kent Stater said, “There was no public debate about her qualifications and no chance for another voice to present a dissenting opinion.”

Faculty in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication condemned the closed search in a resolution passed unanimously by Faculty Senate. The letter asked the university to release all public records related to the search, including those held with the search firm. It also urged Kent State to pledge that all future searches comply with Ohio’s open records law.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s “Sunshine Laws Manual” states “a public office’s obligation to turn over application materials and resumés (sic) extends to records of private search firms the public office used in the hiring process.”

Storbeck/Pimentel would not release the identities of the finalists interviewed and no candidate names were on invoices that documented expenditures incurred during the search.

The Stater requested records related to the search throughout the process, but didn’t receive many of them until nine weeks after Warren was hired. A list of finalists for the position was never disclosed. The university said some records were held by the search firm, and that it was up to Storbeck/Pimentel to release those.

The Akron Beacon Journal reported in April 2014 that Kent State destroyed notes and documents that may have contained information about the applicants.

Following the search, then-Board of Trustees Chair Jane Murphy Timken wrote a letter to local newspaper editors that said the university did not break open records laws and complied with legal requirements.

Warren announced on Oct. 23 she would step down in July after five years at Kent State. Five days later, the university’s procurement department posted a request for proposals, opening the process for search firms to apply to find the university’s next president.

Eric Mansfield, executive director for media relations, said the Board of Trustees will announce its plans for a national search in the coming weeks.

Search firms, also called corporate headhunters, are frequently used to help find and recruit potential candidates for high-level job positions, typically in administration, at the university. Presidential searches are often kept private from the public, as firms recruit potential candidates working at other universities.

At Kent State, finalists for most high-level positions are typically brought to campus for public meetings, including the search that resulted in the hiring of Provost Todd Diacon. The last two presidential searches, which resulted in the hiring of Lester Lefton and Warren, did not do so.

During a closed search, the public does not find out who the candidates are — even after the job is awarded.

Lauren Rich Fine, a former executive search consultant at Howard & O’Brien, said it is necessary to keep searches private so that more candidates will apply and that open processes are “risky.”

“You will not get the same quality of candidates because people will really fear public reaction to their name being out,” Rich Fine said, and that it could be detrimental to their careers at their current place of employment. “And that is really important because if you want the best pool of candidates, you have to offer them confidentiality.”

Some committee members from Warren’s search defended the university’s process for the same reason Rich Fine gave.

“There’s nothing secret about anything we did,” Owen Lovejoy, a professor emeritus and a member of the presidential search committee, told KentWired in April 2014. “More than 50 percent of the candidates would not have applied for the job, maybe 75, had the search not been secret.”

Rich Fine said a search firm will also help the university clearly state what it wants out of the next president.

Frank LoMonte, a senior legal fellow at the Student Press Law Center, said closed searches only benefit the firm itself, as it allows the company to place its candidates in positions without the public knowing who is in the pool of candidates.

“A university president is like being the mayor of a medium-sized city,” LoMonte said. “You have responsibility for police, housing, health care. It’s a powerful government job and we don’t fill powerful government jobs in secrecy.”

LoMonte said in the current “#MeToo” era, closed searches present another potential problem — universities may unknowingly hire a harasser.

“It is impossible today to look people in the eye with a straight face and say that it is a safe practice to hire presidents behind closed doors with what we have learned about the culture of sexual harassment,” he said. “That, to me, is the single most compelling argument for why you have to hold these searches with some degree of openness.”

Search firms check out potential candidates before they are presented to the committee, Rich Fine said.

“(Candidates) will be properly vetted by a search firm without exposing (their identities),” she said. “That is the role of the search firm: To help do those references and make sure all of that has been absolutely checked out.”

Kent State’s Board of Trustees will ultimately select the next president.

Some of the most important decisions on campuses are made by university trustees, LoMonte said, but the trustees who make up these bodies are not representative of the larger campus community.

He said he wants the final candidates to be revealed, but not necessarily the entire list of applicants.

“I don’t think anybody is advocating for 100 percent openness,” LoMonte said. “I don’t think anybody is advocating that all 250 applications be made public. It’s just that when you get down to the final few people, the community needs to have input.”

Warren said the Kent State community should trust the Board of Trustees to find her successor.

“My position on this … is it’s the board’s responsibility to decide the best way to conduct a search to get the best president for Kent State,” Warren said. “So my hope would be that we all trust in our Board of Trustees to make those decisions and then support our board in those decisions.”

Laina Yost is the enterprise editor. Contact her at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: Due to her current and expected future involvement in reporting on the university’s search for a new president, Laina Yost will be stepping away from her role as a member of The Kent Stater’s Editorial Board.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the Ohio Board of Regents approves the Board of Trustees selection of the president. The Board of Trustees makes the final decision.