Trustees | Trusteeship

Secrecy shrouding finalists in university chancellor or presidential searches becoming the norm

HARRISBURG PATRIOT-NEWS   |  July 24, 2013 by Jan Murphy

The days of being open about the finalists in university presidential or chancellor searches may be nearing an end—and higher education has itself to thank for it, according to a Washington, D.C. attorney who specializes in presidential contracts and compensation.

Attorney Raymond D. Cotton said he first became aware of this when he represented a candidate who was involved in an executive search in Wyoming.

That board kept the finalists’ names a secret until the very end because candidates threatened to withdraw from consideration if they were outted

He said the candidates feared they would be “damaged” at the place where they were working if word got out they were in the hunt for another job.

That led Cotton to begin asking around to candidates involved in searches, search consultants and trustees and was surprised by what he was told.

“A number of boards out there and other university officials do not take kindly to their people being involved in these searches,” Cotton said. “Some (job candidates) had been threatened with dismissal including a sitting president, which I find to be completely inappropriate but it’s happening out there.”

So Cotton wasn’t surprised to hear of the secrecy shrouding the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s chancellor search that appears to be nearing an end but finalists’ names are not being disclosed.

System staffers, presidents, Gov. Tom Corbett, trustees, labor union leaders and the system’s board are all meeting this week with the finalists who want to become the fourth chancellor of the 30-year-old system.

But the system is swearing all those participating in those meetings to secrecy about  the finalists’ names and holding the sessions behind closed doors.

System spokesman Kenn Marshall offered this explanation for not disclosing the candidates’ names: “Throughout this process, the candidates were told this would be a confidential search and that’s the way the guidelines were established.”

Even Corbett, who campaigned for governor in 2010 saying he was committed to “100 percent transparency throughout state government” isn’t talking.

Asked about his impressions of the finalists who he met on Tuesday or the process that the State System is using in selecting a chancellor, Corbett’s spokeswoman Janet Kelley responded in an obscure email, “at this point, all I can tell you is that the discussions are continuing.”

Cotton noted private universities have been conducting executive searches in private for years and only in recent years have public universities followed suit. Simply put, he said,  “It’s a reaction to things happening on the campuses where the candidates come from.”

Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, doesn’t see this trend as a good thing.

“It is typically for the advantage of the candidate rather than the institution,” Poliakoff said. “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.”

But he added candidates should remember there is a certain distinction to making it to the final stages of an executive search at a place like the State System.

“The State System should really be negotiating from a position of strength rather than being so worried that they are going to lose candidates by letting it be an open process,” Poliakoff said.

Besides, he said a secretive process is more likely to backfire than help.

He pointed to a closed search conducted by the trustees at St. Mary’s College in Maryland in 2010.

It resulted in the hiring of Joseph Urgo, who parted ways with the public liberal arts college this year after St. Mary’s failed to find enough students to fill its freshman class, creating a financial shortfall for the institution.

Poliakoff said, “A more transparent open search at the beginning would have saved a lot of heartache.”

Cotton, meanwhile, thinks the State System has a lot going for it to make this search have a successful result regardless of the transparency involved in the selection process.

He pointed to the system’s reputation as well as the one of the search consultant it has hired—Jan Greenwood of Greenwood/Asher & Associates Inc. of Miramar Beach, Fla. Cotton also cited the good jobs that its former chancellors landed after leaving the system.

James McCormick left to become chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system; Judy Hample to become president at Mary Washington University in Virginia; and most recently, John Cavanaugh to lead the Consortium of Universities of the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Area.

Cotton said that speaks well for the system in recruiting circles and is attractive to potential candidates hoping to be the next person to wear the State System chancellor mantle.


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