Searching in secret: Hiring administrators is becoming less open and harder to cover
When universities and colleges begin the process of hiring a new administrator, they often keep the names of candidates confidential until the very end.
Universities say keeping the search closed protects the current jobs of candidates, which makes qualified candidates more likely to apply. These closed searches are often met with backlash from the campus communities, who say they want to know more about who is applying and who is selected to lead their institution. Searches for high school administrators are often closed for similar reasons — administrators from surrounding districts are more likely to apply if they know their name will be kept secret.
Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and senior legal fellow at the Student Press Law Center, said closed searches are "definitely becoming more common." LoMonte said he’s seen states that used to be more open with their searches "close off that access in recent years."
"I think the obsession with secrecy makes it almost impossible to meaningfully cover a search," LoMonte said. "What the journalists end up getting is just press releases from the trustees telling people what great progress they're making."
In 2015, the American Association of University Professors released a statement condemning closed searches. The statement says, "the rationale for such secrecy is that open meetings discourage applications from highly qualified candidates, although no evidence has ever been offered to suggest that this is in fact the case."
The statement ends with, "The AAUP thus calls upon colleges and universities to resist calls for closed, secretive searches and reaffirm their commitment to transparency and active faculty engagement in the hiring of higher administrative officers."
A saga at Kennesaw State
In the space of just two years, Kennesaw State University, a public institution in Georgia, has rotated through five presidents, including two interim presidents. In May of 2016, Dan Papp resigned after 10 years as president and an interim president was named. Then, in October 2016, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens was named the next president of Kennesaw State University.
Olens’ appointment was met with outcry across campus. University faculty and students were upset that there was no official search for the position, and filed a restraining order against Olens for the day that he was to become president.
He announced his plans to resign in 2017, a little over one year after being named president. Another interim president was named and a search committee was formed. After several months of a closed search, Pamela Whitten was named the sole finalist and the next president. No other candidates were named throughout the process.
Reporting on closed searches
Cory Hancock, the former editor-in-chief of The Sentinel at KSU, and Sabrina Kerns, the news editor, were on staff throughout the "crazy" transition from Papp to Whitten.
Hancock and Kerns said the search for the current president was an improvement from that of Olens because there was an official search and more transparency about the process. Still, students, faculty and staff were reeling from Olens’ appointment and resignation, and were upset the search for Whittens was again secret, they said.
"I think that's where all of the upset really came from because they felt like this was a time at KSU where they really needed more transparency in what they were doing within the administration," Kerns said.
Hancock agreed, saying the closed search hurt the already damaged trust between the administration and the rest of the campus.
The AAUP chapter at KSU released a statement in February 2018 saying "We disagree, vigorously," with the decision to host a closed search and the rationale behind closing the search.
Hancock and Kerns said they struggled to get information about the search process since so little was made public prior to Whitten's selection. They were regularly in contact with the search and screening committee, asking for more information, they said.
"They let us know over and over again, 'This is a confidential search, we can't give out any names of candidates or finalists, you can't come to our meetings because we'll be discussing names of candidates,' and things like that," Kerns said.
Hancock said he reached out to the committee multiple times each week throughout the semester to "figure out if we could get anything, but they were not budging at all."
Hancock and Kerns were able to get information from other places on campus, though. Kerns began regularly going to faculty senate meetings and talking with faculty members who expressed concern about the closed search. She also attended forums held on campus about the search.
"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.
The decision to have a closed search was made by the search committee at KSU — 14 faculty members, students and community members.
Charles Sutlive, Vice Chancellor for Communications and Governmental Affairs for the University System of Georgia, said the search committee did agree to bring the finalists to campus to meet with students, faculty and staff after the faculty senate asked them to do so. The committee only named one finalist: Whitten. She was brought to campus for an open forum several days after being named the sole finalist.
Sutlive said the University System of Georgia may find future top administrators through similar closed searches or board appointments, adding, "it depends on the institution and what the needs are."
LoMonte said the increase in closed searches is due in part to the influence of search firms that many universities and colleges use when looking for their next administrator.
"These executive search firms have completely hijacked the process and they've convinced university trustees that they will not get good candidates unless they do the entire search secretly," LoMonte said. "That's nonsense, and history proves that's a lie, but the trustees are easily convinced because they're not usually dedicated advocates for open government either."
LoMonte later added, "everybody involved in the process, the people voting on the hire and the people advising on the hire, benefit from closure. They have everything to lose and nothing to gain by letting the public have input."
If names are made public, LoMonte said it becomes difficult for search firms to reuse that same candidate for another search. This causes search firms to advocate for closed searches, and boards will often take their advice.
"It's not about choosing a good president, it's not about choosing a president who's a good fit for the college, the entire driving force behind the way this process is designed is to protect the profits of head hunting firms," he said.
Michael Baer, a partner at the national search firm Isaacson, Miller, disagreed. He said the ultimate decision lies with the governing board and what they think is best for the university.
"We try to work as partners with the university, with the committee that we're working with or with the board," Baer said. "We share everything that we learn about the people we talk to with them and we hope they share their thoughts and opinions ... we see the board or the search committee as the decision maker."
Baer said their process for finding candidates involves a lot of research and reading "to get a real feel for the institution." Following initial research and meetings, Isaacson, Miller will begin narrowing its search to finalists and conducting in-depth interviews, as well as doing "extensive referencing and background checks."
LoMonte recommended reporters check the contract with the search firm, which may not guarantee background checks or a vetting process.
"At that stage, it varies," Baer said. "More institutions than not, now move forward to the board with one or two people that the board might want to meet and narrow it down and make a decision. There are some institutions that will bring some of these candidates back to campus for meetings with people on campus."
Laws on disclosing the names of finalists vary from state to state, and have shifted away from transparency in recent years.
A 2004 study done by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities found that 22 states allowed confidentiality in these searches at public colleges and universities, while 28 states did not. Many state laws now leave the decision to hold an open or closed search to the university's governing body — which typically chooses confidentiality over transparency. Some states that required open searches in 2004 have since repealed those laws.
In 2012, the law in Tennessee was changed from requiring the names of all finalists to be public, to "no less than three" names being made public. In April of 2018, the law was changed again, allowing the university's governing board to name between one and three finalists.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, advocated for more transparency with this law. Fisher said the current law will be in effect for three years. After that, the law has to be renewed or repealed, and a report will be written looking at the impact of the law.
Fisher said while she understands that protecting the names of candidates "may be a legitimate need," she also has concerns about transparency in the process of selecting the finalist.
"My understanding in other states where this has occurred, that when there's just one finalist announced ... is that it's somewhat of a done deal at that point, or it feels at least like a done deal," Fisher said. "... That's what some of these candidates want. They want it to be more of a sure thing before their name becomes public." She is also concerned if only one finalist is named, there won't be time to vet them or the opportunity to compare them to the full pool of candidates.
Fisher said she anticipates at least one search for a university president to happen in the next three years in Tennessee, which will play into the final report.
Florida state law requires the names of all public college presidential candidates to be public. LoMonte said he did not know of any other state where the names of all candidates are required to be made public.
In early 2018, the University of Central Florida conducted a search for the next president. The names of four finalists were public and each finalist held forums on campus. Ultimately, Dale Whittaker was named as the next president following the open search.
Most other states leave the decision up to the governing board of the college or university. In Georgia, home of Kennesaw State University, state law allows but does not require confidentiality.
High School searches
Searches for high school principals and superintendents are often closed as well.
Central Unified School District in California conducted a closed search for its next superintendent earlier this year. After the former superintendent was removed by the school board, the board began searching internally, said Cesar Granda, CUSD Board of Trustees president.
Granda said the board met with human resources throughout the process, hosted meetings with the community and surveyed the community on what they wanted in the next superintendent. After interviewing and selecting their finalist, the board began contract negotiations. Granda said the contract was finalized before the new superintendent, Andrew Alvarado, was announced publicly.
The reasoning for having a closed search for a superintendent is similar to college presidents.
"Our superintendent was currently working at the neighboring school, so you had to keep a lot of privacy," Granda said.
Granda said this is generally the way their district hires administrators, either going through human resources to conduct an internal search or using a search firm to hire someone from outside the district.
After the search
LoMonte encouraged journalists to continue asking questions and reporting on the search process even after it has ended.
"[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.
Hancock said under a new president, "it's easy to get distracted," but the standard for their paper is to "cover all our bases."
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Resources for your reporting
- Tips for covering a closed hiring process
- SPLC blog about closed searches
- SPLC Legal Hotline: speak with an SPLC attorney
- Freedom of Information FAQs
Resources from outside the SPLC
- Freedom of Information laws in each state
- State Freedom of Information organizations
- American Association of State Colleges and Universities 2004 study and map
- American Association of University Professors presidential search committee checklist
- Chronicle of Higher Education article, Secret Meetings and Aliases in a Presidential Search Rekindle Debate About Openness
- Chronicle of Higher Education article, How #MeToo Movement Will change the Way Colleges Choose Presidents