Our View: The worst public transparency crisis since the last time around

DKS Editors

University officials have declared they’re done talking about the presidential search that found President-Elect Beverly Warren. We wish we could be done too.

We wish we didn’t have to remind the top lawyer at a state-funded institution of public records law. But when General Counsel Vice President Willis Walker referred questions of public record to a private firm earlier this month, we feel something has gone horribly awry.

It’s the latest in a series of progressively more-head-scratching offenses that won’t go away until the school proves that a quarter-million dollars of public money was spent correctly. By refusing to release any receipts or copies of any invoices that indicate finalists’ names or identifying information, Walker is failing to provide proof that those funds were spent properly.

Walker said Storbeck/Pimental & Associates, the university’s private contractor who assisted the school in finding Warren, has been given all of the records and the authority to release them if it wants. He even suggested the firm could have already destroyed some of the records.

Indeed, Tom Janson, a music professor and search committee member, confirmed in an interview with the ABJ that all his notes and documents from interviewing candidates were shredded by the school.

The university first denied the public any shred of access last fall when it shrouded the search process in a secrecy so paranoid that the instructions to the finalists’ limousine drivers contain the flourish of covert operations: “Back into garage doors, which will be opened for you on arrival.”

The committee refused to bring candidates to campus for any open forums. Despite a promise to hold multiple forums in August and September, it did not have one forum for students while they were on campus. And search committee members knew all along they could not utter a word about the process in public because of confidentiality clause.

This has all been reported — largely of the Stater and Akron Beacon Journal — and the school’s response, if anything at all, has been unapologetic.

But what has grown increasingly disheartening is the lack of response from those who supposedly represent student and faculty interests. We wish we didn’t have to keep reminding the school that this matters. Remaining silent is not at all representing our interests. Committee members, like Janson, are accepting actions that deeply damage the university’s credibility amid a growing cry from public advocates nationwide.

The proverbial slippery slope has collapsed into an abyss, and it seems everyone is hoping to forget about it instead of addressing the issue.

Just three of the 17 search committee members agreed to speak on the record with a Stater reporter. Paul Farrell, chair of the Faculty Senate, lamely admitted that the Board of Trustees had ignored a request to see the names of candidates from the faculty without any suggestion that he defended its right to that information.

Amish Patel — the committee’s sole undergraduate student representative whose Undergraduate Student Government has failed to accurately represent students almost as much as the search committee — wouldn’t talk about it. Graduate student representative Michael Allen wouldn’t talk about it. Patel and Allen, using a now-nonexistent PR protocol, referred us to former search committee chair Richard Marsh. Richard Marsh referred us to the legal office. The legal office — well, you already know about that one.

You can now appreciate the frustration with a culture of groupthink secrecy and evasion that would be comical if it were a black-and-white slapstick that didn’t implicate public dollars. How is Kent State’s search to be audited? How the hell do we know how they spent the money?

That Warren has already been selected is a moot point. So is the fact that the decision was unanimous. So is the popular support for her personality and fresh ideas, which we have expressed in a previous editorial. A private firm has no business or interest in public records, as Walker himself pointed out to the Beacon Journal’s latest story: “I don’t think they have any interest in talking to you.”

Of course they don’t. We don’t have any interest in talking to them, either.

At a conceptual level, we don’t accept a private search with sealed records — we never have, and we never will. We don’t buy the logic that “more than 50 percent of the candidates would not have applied for the job, maybe 75, had the search not been secret,” as Owen Lovejoy told the Stater.

The school’s purpose in continuing to break the law is simple: to protect the identities of the finalists they interviewed. We received records that show Lovejoy enjoyed $7 pistachios from the hotel bar, and yet we can’t see what the school paid to fly in Warren and possible others.

The above editorial is the consensus opinion of the Daily Kent Stater editorial board.