Five tips for reporting on hiring searches for administrators





When universities begin the process of hiring a new administrator, many will not release the names of candidates until the very end. Some states require three names to be made public, while other states only require one.

As closed searches for administrators become more common, journalists are having to find new ways to report on these searches. Many universities say secrecy is needed in order to recruit the best candidates. This leaves student journalists with little official information during the process and can make covering a search more difficult.

READ MORE: Searching in secret — Hiring administrators is becoming less open and harder to cover

We talked to student journalists and experts for advice on reporting when searches are closed and candidates are unnamed.

1. Report on the secrecy. 

"I think that's the biggest thing — is that student journalists ought to be catalyzing the entire community behind openness," said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and senior legal fellow at the Student Press Law Center. "They ought to be reaching out to student leaders, to alumni, to employees, to faculty, and getting them all on the record saying that secrecy is unacceptable. They should be writing about the secrecy and they should be writing about it often and prominently."

LoMonte said in addition to interviewing people on campus, opinion writers should "use the editorial page loud and clear to let the trustees know that secrecy is not an acceptable way to hire a president."

"The secrecy itself is a big story and it deserves to be written about frequently throughout the process," LoMonte said. 

2. Regularly interview faculty and other stakeholders.

Kennesaw State University in Georgia, announced a new president in June 2018 after conducting a closed search. After several months, Pamela Whitten was named the sole finalist and ultimately approved as the president. 

Sabrina Kerns, news editor of The Sentinel at KSU, reported during that time. 

"Talk to people around campus," Kerns said. "I feel like I got so much information just from talking to faculty around campus."

Kerns said those conversations and regularly going to faculty senate meetings helped her find more information about the search and what faculty wanted in the next president. Members of the faculty senate would regularly contact her about the process, Kerns said.

LoMonte said student journalists should also look off campus and interview other people who have a stake in the final selection. 

"They should be talking to the trustees, talking to state legislators, talking to other stakeholders about what is lost and gained by secrecy," LoMonte said.

3. Don't grow complacent — keep reporting. 

Cory Hancock, former editor-in-chief of The Sentinel, said "trying to stay away from being complacent" was the biggest piece of advice he could offer to someone else reporting on a similar situation. Hancock said the university provided a timeline and the reporters used that, along with talking to sources and regularly checking with the search committee for updates, to keep track of what was happening in the process. They used the timeline to report on open forums, meetings and the search progress.

"It can be really easy to just kind of let go and be resigned to the fact that nothing is going to be given to you until they announce names, but that doesn't mean that things aren't developing," Hancock said.

Kerns was repeatedly told throughout the process that no information would be released until a finalist was selected, but that she and Hancock regularly talked to members of the faculty senate, search committee and board of regents for more information. Additionally, Sentinel reporters attended every forum and open meeting held about the search, even when they were told no additional information would be released. At those forums and meetings, Kerns was able to talk with faculty members and get information about what they wanted out of the search. Those meetings are also where faculty members began advocating for an open search.

"I think it's really important just to remain persistent in getting the information that you want because they will tell you over and over and over again, like I said before 'It's a closed search, we're not going to tell you anything,'" Kerns said. 

4. Report on the search firm and vetting process.

LoMonte pointed out that many schools use search firms when hiring administrators. 

"At a public university, the contracts and terms with the head-hunting firm are a matter of public record and that should be written about," LoMonte said. 

Search firms may also send representatives to campus and hold open forums with students, faculty and staff. Kerns said she often went to these when reporting on the search at Kennesaw State.

Michael Baer, a partner at search firm Isaacson, Miller, said their firm does "extensive referencing and background checks" on candidates they recommend, but other firms may not.

LoMonte added that "the inadequacy of the vetting process is a big story." 

5. Keep reporting even after the search is over. 

LoMonte also encouraged journalists to keep reporting on the search even after the finalist has been selected and ask the finalist specifics about the selection process. 

"[Students] should get the new president on the record saying how many times did you visit this campus before you were hired? How much time did you spend in this town and on this campus before you took the job?" LoMonte said.

LoMonte said if the new administrator has spent little or no time on the campus before accepting the job, it should be a red flag about why they accepted the position. 

"No one should be considered for a job if they're so desperate for it that they're willing to take it under those conditions," LoMonte said. 

SPLC reporter Monica Kast can be reached at mkast@splc.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @monica_kast.

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