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Columbia Missourian

WHAT OTHERS SAY: Shrouding presidential search in secrecy is bad policy for Missouri

By ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
December 14, 2011 | 1:45 p.m. CST

The University of Missouri Board of Curators is really, really good at keeping secrets.

On Tuesday, after an 11-month cloak-and-dagger process that should offend supporters of the state university, the curators announced former business executive Timothy M. Wolfe as their choice to oversee the four-campus UM System.

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There were no announced finalists. No public interviews. No resumes to be scoured for nuggets of information. Even as he stood in a packed news conference with university executives singing his praises, reporters, lawmakers and others were in the dark about the man.

Mr. Wolfe is a former executive with Novell, a software company that was sold to Attachmate, a Houston-based holding company in May. The company then sacked a whole lot of Novell executives, including Mr. Wolfe.

We wish Mr. Wolfe well. He's short on academic credentials but has a strong business background. He grew up in Columbia and received a degree in business from MU. But was he the best available candidate?

We'll never know.

Charles Davis, a journalism professor at the university and a national expert on open meetings laws, decries the closed process, even while being impressed with Mr. Wolfe.

"I just watched as a poised, energetic, professional leader was named president of the UM system. At the same time, I continue to abhor the secret way in which we pick our leaders," Mr. Davis told us.

"It sends the 180-degree wrong message to the campus, and to the state. I cannot see how a transparent process would not have yielded the same result."

The argument for the growing trend of secrecy in university presidential searches is always the same: Leaders are afraid they won't attract top talent out of fear that a public process will scare away applicants. The argument is bogus.

Mr. Wolfe, who was living in Boston, apparently has been at loose ends since being let go by Attachmate in May. Similarly, the university's previous president, Gary Forsee, had been ousted from Sprint before he was named leader of the UM system.

The state's second largest public university, Missouri State University in Springfield, has an open process for hiring top executives. At least three finalists are brought to the campus for public interviews.

Neither of the last two MSU presidents, James Cofer and Mike Nietzel, ducked the publicity of an open search. The university community had a chance to be heard.

The University of Florida, one of Missouri's new athletic competitors in the Southeastern Conference, conducts an open process. All Florida public universities do so, because the strongest open records law in the nation demands it.

The process hasn't caused Florida to "fall into the ocean yet," Mr. Davis notes.

In 2005, Vanderbilt University researchers James Hearn and Michael McLendon studied open vs. closed presidential searches across the country and found "no compelling evidence of diminished presidential quality as a result of openness requirements."

The curators themselves must be vetted by the Missouri Senate in an open confirmation process. The state's Supreme Court judges must apply for their jobs and be interviewed in public.

With a base salary of $450,000, Mr. Wolfe will be paid a lot of public dollars by a state struggling to find them. He is, quite simply, an important public investment.

We hope he succeeds. The curators already failed by leaving the public out of the search process.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.