County auditor questions ‘sad’ KSU presidential-search privacy

Rebecca Reis

Regarding Kent State’s presidential search, Portage County Auditor Janet Esposito didn’t mince words.

“I think it’s sad when we get to that point where they think they have to have confidential records that affect everybody that goes to that university, plus all the taxpayers of Ohio,” Esposito said. “I don’t understand why they think they need to be private. I really don’t.”

Esposito, who has managed the audits of all government agencies in Portage County for 20 years, said she’s been in Portage County all her life and has seen Kent State “grow and prosper because of good efficient management and it should continue that way.” She doesn’t understand the need for privacy.

The auditor’s comments come at a time when the school is under scrutiny for its handling of public records related to the presidential search that found Beverly Warren. Media law experts and journalists have denounced the school for failing to bring candidates to campus for public forums and refusing to document how it properly spent $250,000 of public money to find and interview them.

The search began last summer when the school signed a contract with Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, a private executive search firm that assisted the university in finding candidates for the position.

It ended in January with the announcement of Virginia Commonwealth University Provost Beverly Warren as the school’s 12th president.

The details in the middle are where Kent State, SPA and the search committee have remained quiet.

Reporting from the Akron Beacon Journal has quoted university officials saying they are done talking about the search, and the records are in the hands of a private firm. Despite Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Sunshine laws manual, which states that “a public office’s obligation to turn over application materials and resumes 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 or how it properly spent search funding.

Rep. Kathleen Clyde, Rep. Matt Lynch and Sen. Sherrod Brown did not respond to phone calls and emails asking for comment, and the Ohio Board of Regents said it would not comment on the search.

“Those searches are up to the Board of Trustees to determine how they want to conduct those and do what they deem to be in the best interest of the university, so for that reason we are not commenting further on that,” said Jeff Robinson, communications director for the Ohio Board of Regents.

John Carey, chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, said in an interview last November that the board is responsible for vetting candidates; the way the university conducts the process is up to them.

“I think it is important to have a transparent process,” Carey said. “I’m not sure why the board chose to go with the private firm, and that’s something you have to talk to them about.”

The university has referred both the Akron Beacon Journal and the Daily Kent Stater’s questions about the search to its legal department. Willis Walker, head of Kent State legal department, has declined to offer further comment on the search.

Clyde, interviewed in December about the search, said while open records laws are very important, she understands Kent State’s concerns about releasing personnel information.

“I know that you do have some ability to keep personnel discussions shielded, and I think there is some value to that,” Clyde said in December. “Although you have to balance that value carefully with the public’s right to know. I hope that the university will proceed carefully and consider that balance as they move forward.”

Despite the less than transparent circumstances surrounding the search, Esposito said she’s pleased with the outcome.

“I’m looking forward very much to looking to the new president because I think she’s going to bring a different attitude and hopefully she can run that university efficiently,” Esposito said of Warren.

Esposito said it’s unnecessary for a presidential search to be confidential if it believes it found the right president.

“They made the decision for whatever they did when they were looking for a new president, and they should stand by that decision, because you got a lot of good trustees on that board… And we can all criticize what everybody does if we want to. But you know, facts are facts. You get a good president, you do good and whatever you spent to do it, it was worth it.”

Contact Rebecca Reis at [email protected].