Sunday, June 29, 2008

Secret Finalists Hurt Open Government

The first university presidential search that I was ever aware of was during the 1994-1995 academic year at New Mexico State. Although I was far from involved, I was aware that finalists were being invited to campus. As I recall, forums with each candidate were broadcast on the campus PBS affiliate, KRWG-TV.

According to a LexisNexis search that retrieved an April 7, 1995, article from the Albuquerque Journal, there were four finalists: Joseph Charles Jennett, Herman D. Lujan, William C. Merwin, and J. Michael Orenduff.

The board of regents selected Dr. Orenduff, a man I would come to know and admire during my term as editor of the NMSU student newspaper, the Round Up.

After Dr. Orenduff left NMSU, the executive vice president served first as interim president, and by the time the next search was under way, I was leaving Las Cruces.

Many years would intervene before I seriously thought about a presidential search again. Even when Indiana University selected a new president while I was a doctoral student there, I was too busy to give it much thought.

Then, earlier this year, the revolving door of NMSU presidents began to swing again. Then NMSU-president Michael V. Martin appeared to be on the way out. According to a May 2008 NMSU news release, "NMSU President Michael V. Martin has accepted an invitation to be the sole finalist in Louisiana State University’s search for chancellor."

As an alumnus, I hated to see yet another president cycle through NMSU. However, the idea of a sole finalist bugged me. At the time, I thought that it seemed to be putting an awful lot of marbles in a single basket. Perhaps due to naivete, this "sole finalist" business seemed to be a one-time occurrence.

Not surprisingly, LSU hired the sole finalist Martin.

In February, our president, Jon Whitmore, had resigned. While Martin was a candidate for chancellor at LSU, Whitmore was a finalist for the presidency at San José State University.

Importantly, however, Whitmore was not a sole finalist or a secret finalist. He was competing for the job against Northern Arizona University Provost Elizabeth Grobsmith and Sonoma State Provost Eduardo Ochoa.

There was no secrecy and much transparency. As I had witnessed in 1995, all three of the finalists came to campus. They met with various constituencies, and stakeholders had the opportunity for feedback. The student newspaper, the Spartan Daily, did an excellent job chronicling the search. Thanks to their excellent advisor, Mack Lundstrom, they turned out some of the best on-deadline student journalism that I have ever seen.

However, Whitmore going to SJSU meant that Texas Tech needed a new president. As a faculty member, this is a time of some anxiety because Whitmore was a faculty-friendly president.

But I'm busy, and I haven't thought much about it.

Until the other day when I read, "Finalists for Tech president down to three" in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. OK, who are these people?

Here is the problem. You cannot know who they are. Their names are kept secret. There is no transparency. There will be no public forum for multiple candidates. There will be no input for the average taxpayer. Instead, Chancellor Kent Hance "will interview the candidates and hopes to recommend a president to the university system board of regents by the end of July," according to the A-J.

When I read this, I was in disbelief. Shocked. Turns, out that Texas law allows sole finalists. In the state of Texas, this process is as allowable and as legal as anyone could want. They are doing nothing wrong.

Except it's not right. I'm a free press guy. The most valuable thing I learned as an undergraduate was the First Amendment. I believe in the Fourth Estate. I believe that the other branches of government need to be watched. The public has a right to know.

Texas (and maybe Louisiana) should change this law. This kind of secrecy should erode public confidence, and it goes against the idea of open government upon which this country was founded.

Secret finalists will tell you that they like it this way better. They don't sully their names if they apply for a lot of jobs. They don't risk their reputations at their current institution. These are hollow arguments, and, to me, they do not pass the balancing act where one weighs efficient searches against open government. Only transparent government protects the citizenry.

And the protection goes both ways. No matter how diligent and earnest the search committee and the chancellor are, the sole finalist procedure will always have some resemblance to a back room deal.

A sole finalist is not a finalist. She or he is a president designate. I just cannot imagine that this is how Texas taxpayers want their money invested. The next Tech president will in all likelihood make more than a quarter of a million dollars a year. Shouldn't alumni, students, faculty, and staff have some say in that decision beyond a single delegate on a search committee?

As the law stands, the procedure is legal, acceptable, and probably even customary. Thus, my complaint is not with current committee or chancellor, as they are doing exactly what is expected. My complaint is with whatever governing body originally thought that this was a good idea.

This is a law/statute/code/or executive ruling that should be changed.

Transparency will not ensure a better president. I'm sure that this process selected Whitmore, and he was an excellent president. Furthermore, NMSU has open searches and seems to hire a new president every three years. I am sure that the regents will ultimately select an excellent president for Tech, and this university will continue the great progress that it has made.

However, I think that open government always makes for a better process.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

as don would say, the good ol' boy politics goes all the way to the president level at tech :)

btw, this kind of relates to your previous post. the pendulum is swinging the other way at Tech. true, the secret finalist approach made sure president whitmore, provost marcy, and others all subscribed to the same philosophy in life. and now, it's swinging the other way...everyone including the president and provost will have to fall in line with the hance's dream for tech.

it's great if you like or subscribe to that philosophy otherwise i'd start sending out applications ;)

4:50 PM  

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