August 2018: Reporting on secret hiring of administrators



Hiring processes for university administrators are becoming more secretive and harder to cover. Some state laws allow schools to keep the names of candidates confidential until the very end of the process. This raises concerns about transparency and leaves students, faculty and staff in the dark. This month SPLC reporter Monica Kast talks to student journalists from Kennesaw State's The Sentinel about covering closed searches. 

"Searching in secret: Hiring administrators is becoming less open and harder to cover" by Monica Kast: http://bit.ly/2LSOzdD

"Attorney General Sam Olens appointed KSU's next president" by The Sentinel: http://bit.ly/2wAXXc8

"Anti-Olens protest interrupts Board of Regents meeting" by The Sentinel: http://bit.ly/2MEnSu8

"Dr. Pamela Whitten named KSU president" by The Sentinel: http://bit.ly/2wvnLqH

American Association of State Colleges and Universities 2004 study and map: http://bit.ly/2MHPE9h

State Freedom of Information organizations: http://bit.ly/2LKuTo9


Monica Kast: Hi, I'm Monica Kast, and I'm your host for this month's Student Press Law Center Podcast. The SPLC is the nation’s only nonprofit legal organization devoted exclusively to defending the free press rights of high school and college journalists across the country.

This month, we're talking about what happens when a school hires administrators in secret. 

When administrators are hired without a public search, it raises concerns about lack of transparency. It's difficult to vet these candidates, and students, faculty and staff aren't able to give input in the selection process. We'll be hearing from student journalists at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, whose new president was appointed in June as the result of a closed search. 

I'll also be talking with Danielle Dieterich, the journalism fellow at SPLC, about my reporting process and tips for covering these searches. A link to my story, as well as a transcript of this podcast, are available in the show notes and at splc.org

To start things off, we'll hear from Sabrina Kerns, the news editor at The Sentinel at Kennesaw State University, and Cory Hancock, the former editor-in-chief of The Sentinel. Sabrina and Cory helped cover a recent closed search for the next president of KSU. 

If you count interim presidents, Pamela Whitten is the fifth president that KSU has had since 2016. Sabrina and Cory talked about reporting on a closed search, and the difference in the selection process between Sam Olens, who was hired in secret without a search, and Pamela Whitten. 

A lack of transparency has caused a loss of trust between the administration and the rest of the campus at KSU. That, along with little information released from the administration, caused obstacles in reporting on the closed search. Here's Sabrina and Cory talking about their reporting.

Sabrina Kerns: It was my job mainly to stay on top of what was happening and to go to all of the events that were happening on campus about the search, and I feel like that was mainly where we got a lot of our information, just because we weren't really getting information from anyone that wasn't a public announcement or anything like that. So we would get information from going to, there was a discussion held on campus about what the search was going to be like, and they took questions from like, faculty, staff and students at that time. So we went there and we asked questions and we were reporting on that. I also went to faculty senate meetings to talk to faculty and staff about how they felt about what was going on and they would also make announcements about what was going on at those meetings. So, yeah, a lot of the information that we were getting was from public discussions and public announcements, other than that, since it was a closed search and a confidential search, there wasn't a lot of information that we got directly, that we got from like, speaking to the search committee and things like that. A lot of that information just came from public discussions and announcements. 

Cory Hancock: I know we would periodically get emails from the search committee chair, Doug Moodie, who would send those out every once in awhile, just to give people different updates along the way. But it really kind of felt like we were being led through the dark throughout the whole process, not really knowing when things would break. We were trying to stay on top of people that we were receiving information from and trying to have our bases covered and wanting to give the Kennesaw State community ample, I guess, timely information concerning the search process because we had already been through it once before about a year earlier, and people were already kind of up in arms about that. Of course, not having an open search for our newest president made a lot of people uncomfortable. So, just trying to stay on top of things and make sure we had things covered the best we could, but it was really difficult to try to get the information necessary to try to make informed articles happen.

SK: I felt like it was very different because with the first one, it just felt like what Cory just said, there really was no actual search. I know a lot of the faculty just felt like nothing was really being done, and I feel like in this case, the main reason that faculty and staff and students were upset was because everything that had just happened with Sam Olens and the fact that there was no actual search and then they announce that this one would be closed, 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. And so, I felt like that's where most of the upset came from this time, but this time it felt like there was an actual search, there was a committee and they chose, they sent recommendations to the Board of Regents. They only named one finalist, but it felt like there was more of a process this time than there was with Sam Olens. 

CH: I think that this time, with them at least giving updates as to where they were in the process and actually having a committee surrounding it, a committee full of people outside of the Board of Regents to facilitate it, I think that definitely made a difference. I mean, people still weren't satisfied and I think everybody was still reeling from what had happened with President Olens at the time and how he had really only served for a year,  and people were like, we don't want to be locked into this sort of "one year agreement," if you will, again. And so, I think that a lot of people at Kennesaw are still grappling with that and are kind of wary because they don't want that to be the case again. But you know, at the same time, there definitely was much more of a process and they actually adhered really well to the timeline that they had laid out from the get go, and did everything very timely and did it as they said they would. I think, really, the only thing that people wanted was full transparency, and naming the people that were being considered and being forthcoming because, like Sabrina said, they only named one finalist.

SK: Since they did announce it as a confidential search, we did get in contact with the search and screening committee, and 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.'

CH: I told Sabrina at one point during the semester, I emailed them two, three times a week, or at least once a week at the very least, and we needed to figure out if we could get anything, but they were not budging. 

MK: Do you guys have any advice or anything at all you would give to student journalists who might be going through the same thing and reporting on a confidential search, maybe some of the things you guys did that worked or things they could try to do?

CH: I guess advice from me would be, is just to stay on top of everything. 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.

SK: I agree a lot with what Cory said. 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.' But yeah, just be persistent, just keep talking to people. Talk to people around campus. I feel like I got so much information just from talking to faculty around campus. 

MK: That was Sabrina Kerns and Cory Hancock of The Sentinel at Kennesaw State University. Up next is a conversation I had with Danielle Dieterich, the journalism fellow at SPLC, about the reporting process and some of the roadblocks we had in reporting this story. We'll also discuss some tips we found along the way for reporting on closed searches. 

MK: We're here to talk about kind of my reporting process and things we ran into and things people can look out for if they're going to report on something similar. 

I think probably the first was our beautiful map that we had planned that we kind of realized quickly that two people could not do in a month of reporting. We wanted to talk to someone from each state about the law for candidate confidentiality but after about a week of trying to track people down, we both kind of realized we weren't going to be able to contact 50 states. 

DD: It's just not realistic, yeah. 

MK: Not for two people. So, I think if you're focusing on just one state or area of the country it would definitely be a lot easier to track that down. 

DD: Definitely. And it's definitely a great, useful part of the story and it's something that I would definitely recommend if you have the capacity for it. But because we're working on sort of a national scale it makes it a lot harder and we've run into this issue before, where in different kinds of stories it'll come up, the idea of let's look nationwide and make a map of what every single state says about whatever law or whatever issue and that's great, but like us, I mean, we're working in an internship. It's one semester, even if you're from day one working, which we normally aren't, we aren't even pitching yet, to say we're going to do 50 states is so ambitious. 

That's why my thought process as the editor was why we started with one week as a test case, and for us we chose 5 states, we just went like geographically and chose a region and started in the northeast and said like, try to get five in a week, we'll use this to try to see how we can do the rest of it. 

MK: And I think after about two weeks, we had heard from three states, so we quickly realized that 50 states was just not going to happen. 

DD: But it was still helpful to have that because if you don't try at all, I think that it can be really easy to feel frustrated and feel like 'Oh, I wish I would have gone for it,' and so, I think that was still a useful exercise. We still got five states worth of information, more than five states actually because we ended up revamping it and instead of trying to do every single state, we sort of chose key states. 

MK: Picked some key ones, yeah. 

DD: So you still, no matter what, you got additional information and that's never a bad thing. 

MK: Yeah, and I think part of that too was talking to the different Freedom of Information groups in those five states that we started out with was really helpful to kind of know what I was looking for in the states that we did end up picking and also just having those resources of people I could reach out to and be like 'What do you know about this state? What's your FOIA law?' Things like that, so still good, probably just a little ambitious. 

DD: A learning experience. 

MK: Yeah, yeah for sure. I think another thing that we kind of ran into is that laws can be really varied and specific from state to state. So, some of the laws will say you have to name three candidates, some will say you can name one, some will just say you have to name less than three. And so trying to categorize the different laws got to be a little tricky sometimes. 

DD: Yeah. Again, when you're trying to speak towards the whole country, like, we have to at some point make decisions about how to categorize things and how to like, narrow down information because just listing out, like how many states did you end up getting?

MK: I think I probably talked to eight or 10 states, and I know we included three in the story. 

DD: Yeah, so if we tried to list out 10 states, that's just one, super boring. 

MK: Yeah, nobody is going to read that. 

DD: It's too much for the average reader but it's something that we needed on the back end. I feel like it worked out, but you just have to find a system of consolidating information.  

Now we're actually editing this story, which is its own whole phase of it, and it can be really hard when you've spent a long time like this. Like, this is a pretty longform story, it's been a number of weeks even in a short summer semester and you have a ton of information. And a lot of it is super interesting but maybe not what the story is actually about. And that's something we sort of ran into. 

MK: Yeah, I think especially looking at Kennesaw State University, there's just so much detail that you could put into it that would make it a really interesting story just to look at on its own, but ultimately if you get caught up in a lot of those details, it kind of takes away from the point of the story which is looking at secret searches and not their complicated history of hiring presidents. 

DD: They've had five presidents back-to-back. It's wild.

MK: Yeah, five presidents in two years. 

DD: It almost pains you as an editor to go through and be like 'Let me cut these great grafs.'

MK: Stories about protests and restraining orders and attorney generals being named president. 

DD: All kinds of, yeah, it's just bananas stuff. But when it comes down to it, it is good to sort of, take a first look. My advice as the editor is to read through it all, make notes along the way for yourself and then go back and think about the actual structure for it. 

For me on a story like this, it makes so much more sense to do, not even rounds of edits but basically just continual edits. It should be going back and forth between me and Monica and we're just having that open communication about here's the things I'm noticing, here's the problem, here's the solution. And it she'd come around and then we'd work it out and it's been pretty collaborative and I think that's working. 

MK: Yeah, I definitely think that when you've worked on something for like a month and a half as we have with this, having a second set of eyes and someone who can be like 'We don't need this, we do need this,' is really helpful rather than if you're just working on it on your own I guess.

DD: Definitely. And one of the things we ended up doing is having an accompanying piece. So the second part of it is tips for if you actually are out there and trying to cover a secret search or any kind of presidential search at your college, what does that actually look like? Because we knew that's one of the reasons people might actually want to read this story is, 'This is happening at my school or has already happened or may happen and I want to know how to deal with it,' and it didn't necessarily fit or it was a little tangential or a too much to include in the full original story so we broke it out. And we're actually doing two different versions of those tips, one super brief, one that has a little more detail. 

MK: Yeah, because I've actually reported on something similar back when I was in school, we had hired a president under a secret search and I think having something like these five tips would have been really helpful because I think when it happens you kind of feel like you're going in blind and you don't really know what's coming next. 

DD: It's not something that happens everyday, I mean, if you're not at Kennesaw. 

MK: Yeah, but I guess just to hit a few of those points briefly. Make sure you're reporting on the secrecy. We talked to Frank LoMonte, who's the director for the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. He's also a legal fellow here at the SPLC. But just make sure that you're writing about it regularly and that you're covering it in news stories but also maybe consider doing editorials and things like that.

Another big thing we heard from people was just to make sure you're talking to people on campus. Don't just like, accept the fact that it's a closed search and then never speak to anyone about it again. Definitely be asking questions. 

DD: If you're told a meeting won't have any new information, show up anyway. One of the people that Monica spoke with basically said, 'I would show up no matter what and then people knew to contact me.' And that's pretty major. Faculty were actually reaching out to her and talking to her as opposed to her always being the one to reach out to them. 

MK: I definitely think that making yourself visible on campus at these events lets people know that you're there and you're looking for more information so if they have it, they're more willing to reach out. 

DD: Definitely. And then also going off campus. He listed a couple of key stakeholders.

MK: Yeah, people like politicians, board of regents members who are appointed by the governor, stakeholders off site. 

DD: Off campus. 

MK: And then another thing Frank told us is to keep reporting even after the search is over. Sit down with the person who is actually selected and ask them about their selection process. One of the interesting things he said to ask is ask them how much time the actually spent on campus before they were hired because it can raise some red flags if they've only spent a few hours there, if they've never been to campus at all, it's definitely concerning. 

DD: It can definitely get back to those issues of vetting and how well this new candidate knows and connects with the campus. 

MK: Yeah and I think it also points to why they're taking the job too. If they're taking it without spending any time on campus, we should be asking some more questions. 

DD: Agreed. Always do that, general rule of thumb.

MK: This has been the Student Press Law Center podcast, produced here in Washington D.C. Our theme track is "Inspirational Life" by Sounddotcom. Special thanks to The Sentinel for providing audio from the protests on KSU's campus. If you have questions about reporting on this topic or need legal advice, visit our website, splc.org. You can also find news stories, advice and legal resources. You can follow us on Twitter @SPLC, and be sure to like our Facebook page. You can follow me on Twitter @monica_kast. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next month!