Insanity (noun): doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. See, secret university presidential searches.
The State Journal recently recounted the history of failed Kentucky State University presidential tenures in an article entitled, “Concerns at KSU began more than 20 years ago.” With the exception of the brief tenure of Raymond Burse, the narrative is bleak.
"Over the last 20 years,” reporter Anna Latek wrote, “there has been what seems to be an unending cycle of personnel turnover, legal battles, and conflicts that have arisen that seem to show, much to the frustration of alumni and concerned community members, an endemic problem lurking 'on the hill.'"
At the center of that "endemic problem" lies a series of controversial presidents chosen by means of a secret selection process that produced less than successful, and in some cases, objectively catastrophic results.
A March 2022 article in "Best Colleges” suggests that "the trend toward using more executive search firms — and more secretive searches — began between 1995 and 2005 [a period that aligns with Latek's chronology] and has grown ever since.”
"In 1975, just 2% of searches used firms. By 2015, 92% used firms."
Various explanations are offered for this change in practice, but no evidence is presented that the change yields better outcomes. Kentucky State University's recent history confirms the worst.
Supporters of the current process argue that "closed searches are the best way to attract top-tier candidates for positions."
Detractors -- like Frank LoMonte, past director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the
University of Florida and currently counsel at CNN in Atlanta -- reject this claim, noting:
"There is little proof that closed searches actually produce better candidates. The Brechner Center compared the appointees in a closed-search state (Georgia) to those of more open, neighboring states (Florida and Tennessee). Instead of seeing more out-of-state candidates from prestigious institutions as you would expect as a result of these closed searches, Georgia appointees were mostly insiders with connections to board of trustees members or the university chancellor."
"Search firms," LoMonte asserts, "are the ones who benefit the most from closed searches."
Why, he asks, is "the biggest single decision that goes on in the life of every college campus is made without any public participation?"
The State Journal echoed this sentiment in an editorial published in tandem with Latek's report:
“For a university that needed a multimillion-dollar bailout in the form of House Bill 250 from the General Assembly just last year, we expect more openness — especially with the presidential search process. After all, it was previous administration and a former president that got the institution into a financial mess.”
Some readers found this offensive. I am not among them.
The editorial board “acknowledged that it is legally permissible for the KSU presidential search committee to convene behind closed doors as it appears to do at nearly every meeting,” but was “quick to point out that it’s not a good look for a school with its checkered fiscal past.”
The State Journal is correct. The fact that the KSU presidential search committee can meet in closed session -- per KRS 61.810(1)(f) -- does not mean that it should.
Greater openness, in this context, is the very least we can expect. Those who would vilify The State Journal for questioning the wisdom — versus the legality — of a closed search should examine their own motives (not to mention their own commitment to open government). Were it not for The State Journal — and a courageous whistleblower — the university’s fiscal crisis might not have been exposed before the university imploded.
Twenty years of “problems lurking 'on the hill’” suggest that secret presidential searches at KSU have yielded less than positive outcomes. Evidence gathered in the same timeframe raise doubt about the benefits of secret searches generally.
How does openness in this factual context “benefit KSU?” Disclosure of candidates names and qualifications permit the public to make independent assessments of the candidates -- to conduct independent research, to engage in independent vetting. and, ultimately, to evaluate the work of the taxpayer funded contract search firm as well as the committee itself.
If this be "meddlin," then color me curious.
LoMonte equates “hiring a total stranger [in] higher-ed [to] marrying a mail-order bride: It might produce a long and happy relationship, but the odds are greatly against it.”
The documented risks of an unsuccessful “marriage” resulting from a closed university presidential search are sufficient, in my mind, to overcome speculative concerns about reputational harm from an open search (not to mention inferences of journalistic bias) — especially when the actions of one of the marital partners has, in recent years, contributed to a less than harmonious “marriage.”