ANALYSIS: Secretive hire for UM president vs. transparent search for law dean

Sunday, February 5, 2012 | 5:03 p.m. CST; updated 4:06 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 12, 2013

COLUMBIA — Pepperdine University professor Robert Pushaw Jr. wants to be the next dean of MU's law school — and he doesn't care who knows.

The Yale Law School graduate, who spent eight years teaching in Columbia before moving west, is one of five dean finalists publicly named by theMU law school. Those candidates will each spend two days on campus getting grilled by students, professors, law school secretaries and others. Once they return home, written evaluations of their performances are posted online for all to see.

"If other people want to hire you as a professor or a dean, that's actually considered a feather in the cap of your home institution," Pushaw said. "It's really just par for the course."

Contrast that outlook with the recently concluded hunt for the University of Missouri System's next president, a secret search that culminated in December with the hiring of Timothy Wolfe, a little-known, out-of-work software executive whose name wasn't announced by university leaders until the day he was hired. The 53-year-old MU graduate, a former president of Novell Americas whose father taught at the university, takes office next week.

Confidential executive searches are increasingly becoming the rule rather than exception on public college campuses, even as open government advocates and other observers bemoan such secrecy at taxpayer-supported institutions.

"The law school search really demonstrates the power of this institution to attract high-caliber candidates in a very public search," said Charles Davis, an associate professor of journalism at MU and former executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. "There are institutions all over the country that run public searches, and they work fine. None of them have dropped off and fallen into the ocean, last I checked."

Some states, notably Florida, legally require public colleges and universities to disclose finalists' names in chancellor and presidential searches. That's not the case in Missouri, which leaves it up to schools and their governing boards.

At Missouri State University in Springfield, the Board of Governors chose to identify four finalists in the 2010 presidential search that led to the hiring of James Cofer, who risked the backlash at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, where he was president while angling for the MSU job.

The UM System has approached things differently in recent years. The 2007 search that culminated with the hiring of Gary Forsee as president was also confidential, but that didn't keep the names of several finalists — including former U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, a Columbia Republican, and New Jersey businessman Terry Sutter, who declined the job — from leaking out. Forsee was hired in a second round of that search but stepped down one year ago to care for his ill wife.

Forsee, a former Sprint Nextel chief executive, was out of work when he was hired by the UM System. So was Wolfe, whose software company was bought by a competitor in April. Candidate confidentiality was nonetheless imperative, said curator Warren Erdman.

"It's not the ultimate choice you worry about as much as it is those who were not chosen," he said. "Almost all of the candidates insisted on confidentiality. Most of them were gainfully employed elsewhere and wouldn't even participate if their identity were to be made public."

UM whittled down its applicant pool of roughly 100 prospects to four finalists before selecting Wolfe. Erdman and other curators declined to discuss details about the other finalists' backgrounds or qualifications. Only Wolfe was interviewed by a 20-member advisory panel of professors, students, campus workers, and alumni from the four Missouri system campuses, essentially making that group a glorified rubber stamp.

Jan Greenwood, the search consultant whose firm helped UM hire Wolfe, acknowledged that public searches for university leaders are fast becoming an endangered species. Her industry is rife with tales of retaliation, whether it be spurned donors revoking promised contributions or angry lawmakers putting the kibosh on money for new campus construction once word of a sitting president's outside dalliances reaches home.

Even deans and provosts — lower-level academic leaders presumably immune from the whims of retaliatory firing — have lost their jobs for daring to seek work elsewhere, according to Greenwood.

"When a person has been a candidate for another institution, it's hard to go back home and convince people you're very enthusiastic about their campus," she said.

That doesn't appear to be a problem at the MU School of Law, which has hosted Pushaw and two other candidates with two more to follow later this month. The five-person short list includes two women and two minority candidates.

"Transparency here helps the process," Davis said. "It broadens the pool of applicants. It allows all of the diverse constituencies on campus to be heard from in the search, instead of, 'We'll be in this closed door, and when we find our person we'll let you know,' which is a very insular process."

Pushaw, for one, said he favors open inquiries at public campuses, including presidential searches.

"At a state university, it should be as open as possible," he said. "People have a right to know what's going on."

As for Wolfe's take on the topic? The new president said in a written statement Sunday that he was "supportive and understanding" of the confidential search process.

"While I was not currently working at the time of the presidential search, other candidates were, and I can fully appreciate their need to have their names kept in confidence," Wolfe said. "To have done otherwise could have affected the quality of the candidate pool."

Alan Scher Zagier is a member of the AP's national education reporting team. He has covered higher education in Missouri since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @azagier.

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