EDITORIAL: Kent State’s next presidential search needs to be open

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Henry Palattella headshot

Henry Palattella

When Kent State president Beverly Warren announced in a university-wide email on Oct. 23 that she will step down as president in July, the Kent community was stunned.

She is a regular sight around campus, whether it’s talking to students in the dining halls, at Risman Plaza on a warm day, or courtside at a basketball game, her million-dollar smile illuminating the M.A.C. Center.  It’s not a stretch to say Warren served as the lifeblood of the university community during her five years as its president.

But the process that led to Warren becoming president in 2014 was anything but illuminating. Warren was picked as Kent State’s 12th president after a secret search by the university. Kent State spent nearly $250,000 of public money on the search — many details of which weren’t, and still aren’t, publicly available.

To find Warren, 17 members of a search committee worked with Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, a private search firm based out of Pennsylvania, to try to find candidates who fit what the university was looking for in its next president. After the committee finished the search, it never publicly released the names of finalists for the job.

That can’t happen again.

The proceedings of the 2014 search read like a journalistic horror story. Kent State didn’t include any candidate names on receipts or invoice copies. Repeated public records requests of the university and Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates were ignored for months. When asked about the records, the university grew increasingly distant and silent; it was a silence that spoke volumes.

One member of the search committee even told the Akron Beacon Journal his notes were shredded by the university. That was a gross misuse of power, and the thought of this abuse of public trust happening again sends chills down my spine.

Not only are these actions a potential violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, but it also is antithetical to our idea of American democracy. My journalism classes taught me about the power of public records, and how they not only serve as a vehicle to prevent corruption, but also allow for us to live in an informed society — two values Kent State chose to ignore in their last search. Leaders in America aren’t elected by a group of 17 people who meet behind closed doors. They’re chosen by us, the people.

Kent State is a place filled with a group of incredibly diverse, varied and courageous people, and they deserve a chance to develop an organic opinion of the finalists when they’re exactly that — finalists.

Owen Lovejoy, one of the search committee members in 2014, told the Daily Kent Stater he felt “more than 50 percent of the candidates would not have applied for the job, maybe 75, had the search not been secret.”

That shouldn’t matter. We know that Lovejoy munched on $7 pistachios from the hotel bar during the search, but not the names of the candidates who were interviewed at the hotel. Kent State deserves a chance to openly and publicly question and research the candidates, and the candidates who apply need to understand and embrace that reality. If they don’t, they’re unfit for the job.

This presidential search is arguably the most important one in Kent State’s history. Whoever steps into Warren’s shoes will be in charge for a majority (if not all) of Kent State’s 10-year, $1 billion Master Plan.

This, Kent State, is why I implore you to make this presidential search public. I’ve seen the university undergo tremendous change during my nearly four years here, and I know there’s more coming in the future. The public deserves a chance to question potential presidents about that change and their vision for Kent State. They also deserve to judge for themselves whether they think the candidates will foster that growth, or look to quash it.

And as a journalist, I ask you to think about the example you’re setting. Public records often form the basis of what we do; they help us to inform the public and hold people and organizations accountable. Without free and unfettered access to them, the very freedoms we as journalists stand on will crumble.

That’s why I implore you, Kent State, to make this presidential search public. After the last search concluded, a group of JMC faculty placed a full-page ad in The Stater with the words “We’re embarrassed” across the top in large type; it’s taped to the front door of my office and I see it every time I come to work as the editor.

Please. I’m urging you. Don’t embarrass us again.

Henry Palattella is the editor. Contact him at [email protected]