A tale of four presidential searches

The Kent State Board of Trustees welcome Beverly Warren as she is announced as Kent State’s twelfth president January 9, 2014.

Carrie Blazina

Jim Tressel is a finalist for the presidential job at the University of Akron and Youngstown State University, but if he were considered for the same position at Kent State or Ohio State University, the public might never know.

The former Ohio State football coach and Akron’s executive vice president for student success applied to be president at Youngstown State and Akron, who both named him as a finalist this month in their presidential searches. The two schools are currently conducting open presidential searches, meaning they are releasing the names of presidential finalists to the public.

With Kent State and Ohio State’s presidential searches completed, both schools chose closed processes without the names of finalists for the job released. Beverly Warren, who will succeed Kent State President Lester Lefton in July, and Michael Drake, OSU’s new president, were chosen in January.

In the world of presidential searches, some universities choose full transparency and release the names of presidential finalists to the public. Others — such as Kent State — believe the university would not have as many applicants if the process were open. In Ohio, the process of choosing a university president varies among the four schools looking to replace their university’s chief.

Open versus closed

Kent State’s presidential search has been criticized by the Akron Beacon Journal and other media outlets for not announcing its finalists, but university spokesman Eric Mansfield said the university is pleased with its choice of Warren and stands by the process it used.

“[After] a review of best practices and under the advice of the search firm, who specializes in this, we were convinced that we would get a better pool of top applicants if there was confidentiality afforded to those people,” Mansfield said. “And we believe that is exactly what happened.”

Akron has chosen to conduct an open search, naming Tressel, University of Toledo Provost Scott Scarborough and University of Maryland Eastern Shore Provost Ronald Nykiel as its finalists April 22. All three will visit campus this week.

“An open search is the way we do business, period,” Akron spokeswoman Eileen Korey said. “The transparency of the search process really matches the transparency in the way we do business as a public university.”

Youngstown State named Tressel, Southern Oregon University President Mary Cullinan and Gary Miller, chancellor of University of North Carolina-Wilmington, its presidential finalists Monday. They will visit campus May 5-7. Youngstown State spokesman Ron Cole was unable to give a full interview by press time, but he redirected questions to the university’s search website.

Ohio State spokesman Gary Lewis said he was out of the office and unable to answer questions by press time. Lewis told the Plain Dealer on Monday that the university’s closed search process has not been questioned.

“With the size of our university seeking someone of that caliber, there has to be some sense of privacy for those potential candidates,” he said. “There was a lot of transparency as well as input.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director at the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit specializing in media law in Washington, D.C., said a closed search is often done to protect the identities of candidates from their current employers, which he thinks is unnecessary.

“There is really only one reason to do a closed search, and that is to protect the ego of the candidates who don’t get selected. That’s it,” he said. “There’s no other reason to deny the public access to information about the candidates and the opportunity to question them.”

LoMonte said the use of closed searches is “fundamentally undemocratic.”

“No one would want to live in a city where the mayor was picked by 15 rich business people sitting in a room voting behind closed doors,” he said. “And that’s exactly how college presidents are getting chosen.”

Community input  

Each university used its search committees and organized community forums to learn what its community wanted in its next president.

Kent State’s search committee included public input through forums for students, though both forums occurred in August before students returned to campus. The committee also accepted nominations through its presidential search website.

Akron’s three finalists will field questions from the university community in public forums during their visits. Their schedules also include meetings with administrators, student representatives, Faculty Senate, Akron’s faculty union and community leaders.

Youngstown State’s three finalists will meet with similar university officials and answer questions in a public forum. They will also meet with YSU Foundation representatives and community leaders, according to the university’s press release about the finalists.

Ohio State hosted the most forums for public input with a total of 14 held at both its regional and main campuses last fall.

Search committee composition

Those chosen to be on the committee to select the each university’s president varied in number and makeup at each institution.

Mansfield said Kent State’s search committee chair, Richard Marsh, purposely included a variety of people on the 17-person committee — two students, four administrators, five professors, four community members and two trustees.

“A decision was made through his leadership to include a diverse group of people,” Mansfield said. “That was very intentionally put together.”

Akron’s committee is composed solely of trustees, which Korey said is part of existing university policy for presidential searches. Youngstown State’s Board of Trustees also serves as its search committee.

Ohio State had the largest search committee with 18 members, composed of two students, nine administrators, two professors and five trustees, according to its search website.

Applicants, candidates and finalists

Ohio courts have historically rejected the tactics being used by some universities to conceal the names of presidential finalists.

While Kent State released the applications of 21 people who applied for the presidential post last December, the university has not released the finalists’ names.

Mansfield has said the search firm is in possession of search records, according to its contract with search firm Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates. Mansfield also said many records such as finalists’ names and more information about each candidate do not exist because a lot of committee business was conducted over the phone.

“If we had it as a public record related to the presidential search, we’ve released it,” Mansfield said.

LoMonte said the records related to each candidate must exist somewhere, and if they do, they are public records.

“It’s not possible that all of these committee members just carried around all the names and biographies of all the candidates in their memories,” he said. “Clearly, they were working off some type of record such as a ranking of candidates or prepared biographies.”

Akron posted the names of 15 applicants, their resumés and their other application materials on its presidential search website earlier in the process. Korey said the university only considered candidates who formally submitted their application materials.

“If an individual was interested in the position but did not want to go through the formal application process, then they were not being fully considered by our Board of Trustees,” Korey said.

The Youngstown Vindicator reported the names of seven applicants to be YSU’s next chief on April 22 and said there was a total of 37 applicants.

Ohio State did not release the names of finalists before publication, but the Columbus Dispatch reported that there were five finalists who visited campus before Drake was chosen.

Satisfaction with process

LoMonte said while the general public does not always care about the openness of the process, it cares about the resulting president chosen.

“I’ll grant that there is diminished public interest in knowing the name of some obscure nobody who applied who has no shot at being considered,” he said. “[But] the public’s interest in getting an honest person in the job who is a good fit for the community is often … aligned with the interests of journalists in openness whether they fully appreciate that or not.”

Mansfield said Kent State is thrilled with the choice of Warren.

“This [process] worked exactly like we hoped it would work — inclusive, nationally looking for the best candidates and ending up with a superior leader to be our next president,” he said. “It’s been over for almost four months, so we really are focused on the transition.”

When Akron’s finalists’ visits are complete, Korey said the search committee will choose a president based on a presidential leadership statement adopted by the search committee. Korey said Akron’s president is likely to be chosen in the next few weeks.

Youngstown State is seeking a new president who is “a dynamic, energetic, and visionary leader to work closely with the entire University community to achieve its mission and potential, emphasizing a creative, integrated approach to education, scholarship and service,” according to the advertisement for the position.

After Drake’s selection at Ohio State, trustee and search committee chair Jeffrey Wadsworth said Drake met all the criteria at which the committee looked.

“We looked for someone who could manage complexity, who understood academic medical centers, understood academics, athletics and cared about diversity,” Wadsworth said.

LoMonte said Kent State might have found a good leader through a closed process, but that does not mean processes should always be closed.

“Kent State might have gotten lucky that they got somebody good, but time will tell because part of being good is respecting the public’s right to know what’s going on at the school,” he said.

Contact Carrie Blazina at [email protected].