Presidential search applications unavailable to public

Madeleine Winer

Four weeks after the presidential search committee began “full consideration” of applications and nominations, the search to find Kent State’s next president remains under wraps. Kent State’s Office of General Counsel has not released applications of those who applied to be Kent State’s next leader.

Kent State spokesman Eric Mansfield said the search committee and Kent State do not have the applications in their possession. He said all of the documents related to the search for president are currently at the search firm, Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, located in Media, Pa.

“The process is still in the recruitment phase,” Mansfield said. “This includes giving the search firm adequate time to process any applications submitted as part of advertisements for the position.”

Mansfield added when Kent State is in possession of the applications, the university will be responsive to public records requests. Search committee chair Richard Marsh has chosen to “respectfully decline all media interviews,” but will continue to inform the public when there are updates to provide about the search.

Marsh has not indicated in past interviews whether the search applicants would be made public at any time.

Karen Lefton, partner at Brouse McDowell law firm in Akron, represented the Akron Beacon Journal when it requested applications in the search that found President Lester Lefton in 2006. She said the newspaper had a dispute with Kent State’s legal counsel regarding whether the records should be public.

Although a lawsuit was never technically filed, Karen Lefton drafted a court order that required Kent State to release the records. She said the board reconsidered their denial, and the newspaper received the records.

“I think there is a natural tension between those who want to keep things private and the interest of the public,” Lefton said. “The public is better served when the university is transparent and has everyone aware of the search and how it is going and gets a lot of input from public. This is a very high-level public job. At times, other people trying to fill the position tend to forget that.”

Lauren Rich Fine, an executive search consultant at Howard O’Brien Associates in Cleveland, said any executive search is highly confidential. Fine, who has taught at Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said it would be wrong for the university not to keep it confidential.

“Any time you do a search, it is extremely confidential,” she said. “What person is going to want to apply for that job knowing that other people were looking at it? It’s a highly confidential process. If someone is a president at another university and they think this is a better opportunity for them, they don’t want it all over the place that they are looking for a job.”

The Daily Kent Stater submitted a public records request to the legal department on Oct. 9 for “all applications submitted to the presidential search committee or Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates for the position of president of Kent State University.”

Nichole Decaprio, assistant general counsel, communicated by email several times indicating the unversity was gathering the records. When reporters went to the administrative offices Tuesday to inspect the applications, Mansfield said they were not yet available and that members of General Counsel typically do not allow interviews.

The Stater sent the same request the search firm Nov. 6. The firm then forwarded the request to Kent State as a courtesy, Mansfield said.

According to the contract with the search firm, “records provided by SPA to the University remain the property of SPA.” It also states the firm considers candidate documentation confidential “proprietary information and trade secrets,” which can be restricted under Ohio public records law.

However, the search committee’s presidential prospectus and job postings told applicants their materials may be subject to release “in the event of a public records request pursuant to the ORC (Ohio Revised Code) 149.43.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director at the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit specializing in media law in Washington D.C., said documents that serve a public business are public — it doesn’t matter who holds them.

“I think the answer is the documents are in the legal custody of the university today,” LoMonte said. “Because they have legal custody of these documents, they can’t just park them with this outside third party and declare them to be private documents. They’ve been served with a lawful public records request that is legally appropriate, and their job is to gather those records.”

LoMonte said the university has exceeded the “reasonable amount of time” the Ohio Revised Code allows public entities to gather the applications, which is a violation of Ohio law.

“Ohio Law requires that they comply with a public records request within a reasonable amount of time,” he said. “A reasonable time does not mean 3, 4, 5 weeks. It means a matter of hours or days.”

Ohio State University and Akron University are also conducting presidential searches this academic year.

OSU has announced its presidential search committee will not make the candidates for its presidency public, according to an article published by its student newspaper, The Lantern.

The University of Akron’s presidential search committee, which consists solely of its Board of Trustees, has not chosen a search firm to help with its search.

Mansfield said other media outlets have requested material related to the presidential search and have been told the materials are not available.

“We understand people are anxious to know what’s going on and who they are looking at,” Mansfield said. “But we have no information to provide to the media or to the public as far as where the search is. There’s no hidden agenda here to keep documents away. Once those things are made available to the university, by law, we will make them available to the public.”

Contact Madeleine Winer at [email protected].