Experts differ on merits of open search

How open the search for MU chancellor will be is uncertain.
Sunday, April 25, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:26 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

The level of openness is a decision administrators must make as MU gears up to search for its next chancellor.

MU Provost Brady Deaton, who is slated to become interim chancellor Sept. 1, was recently in the race for president at the University of Tennessee, a search more open than average. Deaton will serve as MU interim chancellor until the end of the year, when UM system President Elson Floyd expects to announce the campus’ 20th chancellor.

Floyd declined to address open search processes. He said a national chancellor search committee will be appointed soon.

Universities’ searches for top administrators take different forms — from completely open to secretive. MU’s recent searches for provosts or vice provosts have opened up in the final stages, but vague personnel hiring laws could allow the university to take the more secretive approach with the chancellor job. The decision is Floyd’s — himself the product of

a closed search. As president, though, Floyd has pushed for a climate of openness at the university. Within his first few days in the job, for example, he settled an open-records lawsuit with the Kansas City Star.

Asked about his experience at UT, Deaton said the open process allowed the search committee and community to weigh the pros and cons of candidates. UT chose an open search after two of its recent presidents resigned under shady circumstances. John Shumaker stepped down in August after an internal audit raised questions about his use of the university plane and his university credit card. J. Wade Gilley resigned in 2001 amid allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.

MU journalism professor Charles Davis, director of the Freedom of Information Center, said universities that do not expose candidates to public scrutiny run a greater risk of making the wrong choice.

“I think that UT has learned very painfully that secrecy in the search process lends itself to less-than-perfect candidates,” Davis said. “I am convinced that if you have a closed search, there is a great likelihood you will eventually hire someone who will embarrass the institution.”

The fate of the two former presidents played a major role in UT’s decision to open its search this year, said Margaret Perry, former chancellor of UT-Martin and executive director of the search.

UT developed a 19-member search council made up of faculty, staff, students, alumni and trustees. The council held forums with students and faculty across the state to establish criteria candidates would have to meet. Forty-seven candidates made the cut, and their names were published on the university’s Web site. Every subsequent meeting was broadcast live over the Internet.

After the council, with the help of an outside agency, had cut the number of candidates to 12, those candidates were interviewed in front of a search committee of four board members, two students and two faculty members. The committee eventually cut the candidates to six, then three. John Petersen, provost at the University of Connecticut, came out on top. The UT Board of Trustees made the final decision.

Perry said the open process allowed for public and media scrutiny of the candidates and gave students and faculty from the five UT campuses a chance to know their president even before he was appointed.

At MU, Deaton and current Chancellor Richard Wallace referred questions on the upcoming search to Floyd.

“The type of search that would be undertaken here depends on the kind of approach that President Floyd would take,” Deaton said.

Floyd’s appointment in November 2002 was the result of a search that became public the day curators offered him the job. That approach is not unusual.

“The ideal situation for most candidates is that after they are appointed there is an announcement, a press conference and a party,” said Jean Dowdall, who as vice president of executive search firm Witt/Kiefer has helped with many searches for university administrators.

Dowdall, who was instrumental in recruiting Stephens College President Wendy Libby, said the consensus among consultants is that open searches are harmful.

The reason, Dowdall said, is that candidates don’t want their present institution to know they are involved in a search. The best candidates apply not because they are unhappy in their current jobs but because they want to work for better institutions or are persuaded to do so by either the job description or by consultants such as Dowdall.

Candidates have different levels of comfort with their names being released. They usually weigh that against their interest in the institution and the chemistry of their early interactions with the search committee.

There is a trade-off in the way you search, said Lori Franz, MU vice provost for undergraduate studies. Franz thinks the UT search committee lost some freedom to evaluate candidates and discuss their references because it was such an open search.

“I would not want openness to the point where search committees could not openly discuss reference checks,” Franz said.

Gail Lawrence, chairwoman of the MU staff advisory council, said MU has fairly open searches for its lower administrators. These are conducted by the campus with no interference from UM UM system officials. Lawrence doesn’t think the system’s involvement in the search would change this, because it would create a bad precedent.

Franz said the MU community at a minimum would like to see chancellor finalists meet with campus constituencies.

Universities commonly release the names of the last three to five finalists for top administrative jobs. Sometimes they come to campus and interview publicly with faculty, students and staff.

Dowdall said she encourages institutional clients to expand the interview process by bringing in groups outside the search committee after the list is narrowed to a few candidates. This, she said, allows other campus representatives to meet the candidates, while their names remain confidential.

“We would lose our best candidates if you cannot provide confidentiality,” she said.

Davis said the UT search shows that argument has no merit.

“People who are competing for a $600,000-a-year job are not slowed down by publicity and candidness,” Davis said.

Davis also questioned whether the section of state open-records law that MU officials use to justify secret searches actually applies. The section states that a public governmental body can close records or meetings when personal information is discussed in the process of hiring an employee.

Davis said personal information applies to aspects such as marital status, reputation and personal qualities, which don’t play a major role in hiring.

There is no magic formula to ensure the best of searches. Not even consultants ensure a perfect search, Dowdall said.

“There have been some really high-profile disasters even with search consultants, so I can’t pretend we are perfect as an industry,” Dowdall said.,

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