OPINON: Secret presidental searches are not the answer

Frank LoMonte

The president of a state university is one of government’s most powerful leaders, responsible for policing, healthcare and an array of other public services. It’s like being the mayor of a good-sized city — with one big difference.

We did away years ago with the smoke-filled room where a handful of elite power-brokers would rig the mayor’s election over the poker table. But backroom deals are alive and well at public universities.

Ohio law entitles the public to obtain records about major government decisions, including filling top executive jobs. But when Kent State last hired a president in 2014, the public was kept completely in the dark.

The university purposefully slow-walked journalists’ requests for public records until the hire could be completed — then ordered members of the search committee to destroy their records so there’d be nothing to produce.

No one was ever punished for the wrongdoing, but belatedly, there’s a chance to right the wrong.

With President Beverly Warren stepping down next July, the Board of Trustees can avoid a repeat of the 2014 disaster by giving the public the names of those interviewed to replace her, and bringing the finalists to campus to meet with students, faculty and alumni.    

Regrettably, universities are increasingly hostile to public accountability in presidential hiring. With clandestine airport meetups, disguises and shredded documents, the selection process looks like an especially seamy episode of “Breaking Bad.”

Secret searches have resulted in disastrous mismatches — and, at times, even worse. Penn State came within hours of announcing a New York medical college president, David Smith, as its new chief executive — until his name leaked, and a tipster alerted the university that Smith was about to be indicted for illegally padding his pay (to which he recently pleaded guilty).

At New York’s Ithaca College, the community found out only a year after their president was hired in secrecy that she had a criminal conviction for sexually abusing one of her psychological counseling patients – a fact that could’ve been publicly debated if the university hadn’t broken its promise of a transparent search.

Botched searches happen because of universities’ over-reliance on private “headhunting” firms that put confidentiality ahead of quality. These costly contractors — whose fees can top $200,000 — admit they don’t even do minimal background checks, because that might tip off the current employer that the candidate is looking to leave.

Thanks to the fall of high-profile harassers from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, we know that people in positions of authority often use those positions to sexually coerce subordinates. When a president is hired in total secrecy, whistleblowers can’t come forward until it’s too late.

Even where candidates aren’t felons or harassers, secrecy undermines public confidence. If the job is handed to a politically connected insider, the public has no way of knowing whether a diverse, well-qualified pool was considered. 

Against overwhelming evidence that secret searches are civically toxic, trustees and headhunters have only one counter-argument: “Good” candidates won’t apply in a public search for fear of workplace retaliation.

That claim makes no sense once you realize that executive jobs below the presidency — even as high as the #2 job, provost — are almost always filled in public searches so the campus can meet the finalists. If a college executive feels safe interviewing publicly for a provost’s job, why not a presidency?  

Even if vindictive trustees do threaten to punish their president for talking to another school about a job, that’s educational terrorism. We can’t shut the public out of the hiring process – and risk a “scandal time bomb” – to indulge white-collar terrorists.

Undoubtedly, satisfaction with President Warren’s performance will be cited as validation that secret searches produce successful results. That’s as persuasive as saying that, because hundreds of drunks made it home safely from bars last night, “intoxicated” is a proven successful way to drive.

Kent State trustees are scheduled to vote Dec. 5 on hiring a search firm and launching the selection process. If their chosen headhunter won’t bring multiple finalists to campus to undergo a thorough vetting, then the trustees should hire somebody better. If you’re a headhunting firm peddling candidates who can’t stand up to public scrutiny, #timesup for your failed business model.  

Frank LoMonte is a media lawyer and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, a think-tank about the law of open government.