In Ohio, Kent State University recently conducted a presidential search that was so secretive that search committee members have admitted to shredding documents to cover their tracks. “The notes are gone,” one committee member told staff writer Carol Biliczky of the Akron Beacon Journal. “Everything’s been taken care of. We shredded anything with personal data.”
Across the state line in Michigan, both Wayne State University and the University of Michigan have also conducted secret presidential search processes in the past year, announcing the final candidate only at the meeting where the hire was made. That’s not all: t U-M, members of the Board of Regents deliberate on even minor matters in private before holding perfunctory votes in public.
The increasingly closed-door culture of some university boards has frustrated journalists in both states—but it’s also energized them, judging from recent aggressive coverage from several publications that has called out opaque practices and potential legal violations. “They’re starting to act like a corporate board,” says David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press, who has catalogued a startling lack of transparency at U-M in particular. “You wouldn’t have the same standards of scrutiny on a corporate board as on a public board of elected officials. But they are still elected officials of a public university, and there needs to be some public accountability for how they make decisions.” (Disclosure: I’m a U-M alum, and I occasionally contribute articles to the Free Press.)
At Kent State, it’s worth noting that it’s the search process that’s being criticized, not the candidate who was ultimately selected. There appears to be widespread agreement that Beverly Warren, the provost of Virginia Commonwealth University, is well qualified for the job.
Still, the Beacon Journal is not letting the university’s approach go unchallenged. Biliczky’s excellent April 12 story points out that search committee members had to sign confidentiality agreements, and that the private search firm hired by the university had an addendum to its contract that gave it the power to decide what records to make public. The search cost $250,000 of public money, and the university will explain only in general terms how it was spent. The revelations in her story spurred more than two dozen members of the school’s journalism faculty to take out a full-page ad in the student paper saying they were “embarrassed” by the administration’s stance.