Karen Dawisha and Keith Tuma are co-presidents of the Miami University chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and John McNay is president of the AAUP’s Ohio Conference.
Last week, news emerged that the Miami University board of trustees has chosen to conduct a secret search for the new president of the university. This is an alarming development.
Putting three elected faculty on the search committee and swearing them to secrecy – they will be asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement – does not represent an open process in which the input of all members of the university community is considered. It does not suggest that the board takes shared governance seriously. Faculty should be widely consulted and have input in all important decisions at the institution. They do the work that is central to the university’s core mission – instruction and research – and they know a lot about the qualifications and commitments a president should have.
The board’s decision does not reflect the norm in Ohio. Presidential searches conducted in the recent past at Bowling Green, Toledo and Akron have been open processes in which finalists were brought to campus and required to meet with faculty and students. There are no special circumstances that justify the Miami board’s secretive process. Transparency and honesty, especially at a public institution of higher education, should be of the utmost importance.
Miami University is Ohio’s most expensive public university. It generates enormous revenue and is building large reserves on the backs of its students. Those students also deserve the right to be involved in the hiring process and to evaluate the finalists in open forums and small group settings.
What has happened at the University of Iowa is a cautionary tale. The Iowa board of regents hired as president Bruce Harreld, a corporate executive whose primary experience was based in marketing for IBM. The faculty were polled and almost unanimously found Harreld unqualified to be president. Iowa brought in all four finalists (three were clearly highly qualified) to face the faculty and students, but the regents blundered by hiring Harreld over persistent objections by the university community. The university is now in turmoil, and the faculty have issued a vote of no confidence in the board there. Miami has a chance to take a different road and to make a choice based on maximum feedback from all concerned parties – faculty, students, staff, alumni and the administration.
Many experts see a secretive process like the one proposed as flawed: “It is typically for the advantage of the candidate rather than the institution,” says Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, told Inside Higher Ed recently. “A confident and great institution should really be setting its own terms rather than deferring to candidates who understandably want to spare themselves the embarrassment of possibly being a finalist and not getting a final offer.” Further, such a clandestine process certainly violates the spirit if not always the letter of the Ohio Open Meetings Law and thus opens the door for ongoing controversy.
We are disappointed by this decision by Miami’s board of trustees. This position is very important to the future of Miami University and demands much more transparency than is being offered. It is especially unfortunate that an institution of higher education is all but locking out of the process the very people who are most engaged in education at Miami – students and faculty.
Miami University is an outstanding institution and deserves better judgment from its board of trustees than this. There is still time to fix this situation. We urge the Miami trustees to reverse their decision and show that it honors the tradition in higher education of openness and free exchange of ideas that an above board search would reflect.