By the time University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little leaves the office next summer, her successor probably already will have been selected.
But even with roughly nine months between now and then to complete a search, KU community members and the public probably won’t learn anything about the candidates vying to become the university’s next leader. Instead, they’ll be told only who the ultimate selection is, after that person has been hired — an increasingly common practice that not everyone in academia, or at KU, supports.
“The search for a public university president should not resemble the papal conclave,” said KU assistant professor of journalism Jonathan Peters, who specializes in the First Amendment and also serves as the press freedom correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review. “I think that before someone is given a half million dollar paycheck at a public institution, its major stakeholders and the public at large should be able to know whether the best candidate has been chosen and whether the process has been fair. It’s not possible to know those things in a closed search.”
Gray-Little, 71, announced Thursday that she’ll step down following the 2016-17 academic year.
While the Kansas Board of Regents has yet to formally approve how the process will proceed, representatives of the body said last week they anticipate the KU chancellor search will be closed.
Their reasoning mirrors that cited by other universities that have kept presidential searches closed. Candidates who are qualified to lead a large research institution like KU probably already hold leadership positions at other universities, and word that they’re looking elsewhere could negatively affect them professionally or prevent them from applying altogether.
“A lot of people think that that’s because we want to keep it secret,” Regent Bill Feuerborn said. “You just have so many more applicants...you want to get the best possible people for the job.”
KU’s chancellor is a high-profile and far-reaching job in the state of Kansas.
Gray-Little oversees the main campus in Lawrence, the Edwards Campus in Overland Park and the KU Medical Center campus in Kansas City, along with various initiatives stemming from all of them. Her salary is $510,041, the most of any state university leader, according to figures from the Kansas Board of Regents.
Gray-Little herself was hired in 2009 following a closed search; other finalists were never publicly announced.
Currently, the Regents are conducting a closed search for the next president of Kansas State University. President Kirk Schulz left K-State earlier this year to become president of Washington State University, surprising many because the Board of Regents in Washington also conducted a closed search prior to announcing his hire.
The Kansas Board of Regents has completed two other presidential searches in the past four years, though the earlier ones — both at smaller schools — were more transparent.
In 2014, the Regents appointed Mirta Martin as president of Fort Hays State University. She was one of five finalists who visited campus and interacted with students and employees prior to the decision, Board of Regents spokeswoman Breeze Richardson said.
The Regents announced in late 2015 that Allison Garrett would be Emporia State University’s next president. Garrett was one of two finalists that visited the ESU campus first, Richardson said.
In both cases, finalists’ names were announced the day before their visits, Richardson said.
Such jobs are competitive, Richardson said, and finalists often are candidates for other jobs at the same time.
“You get to this point in the process where you’re really vulnerable for someone leaving your search because they’ve been offered another job,” Richardson said.
KU’s recent searches for other key administrators resembled the Fort Hays and Emporia searches.
New KU provost Neeli Bendapudi and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dean Carl Lejuez, to name two, were announced following campus visits and public presentations by multiple finalists.
KU faculty, staff and students packed rooms for their presentations, and search committees solicited feedback prior to making their recommendations to the chancellor.
University Senate President Joe Harrington, a professor of English who’s been at KU since 1995, said he thinks that’s how the chancellor search should be conducted, too.
“Most of the people in the Senate and probably on campus would prefer to have an opportunity to interact with the candidates, and to give the candidates an opportunity to see what kind of a place they would be running,” Harrington said. “That, to me, seems to balance the need of the candidate to keep things quiet at their home institution with the need for the campus community to have a look at the person and talk with them.”
“It’s a more engaged campus now than I’ve ever seen it. Take advantage of that — have people ask questions that the search committee may not have thought of.”
The Regents publicly vote on presidential search committees that include faculty, staff, students, alumni and others, Richardson said. Those people, along with a search firm hired by the Regents, are tasked with recommending finalists to the Board of Regents, whose members interview finalists and decide who to hire.
“It’s really important to the Regents to diversify that committee,” she said.
If the KU chancellor search must be closed, Harrington said, he wants University Senate to have a say in who serves on the search committee.
“That would go a long way toward establishing trust,” he said. “I think it would also go a long ways toward getting the new chancellor’s tenure off on the right foot, just to have the selection of that person be an inclusive process, at least in terms of representation on the committee.”
The number of closed searches at public institutions has steadily grown over the past two decades, Jan Greenwood, search consultant for Greenwood/Asher and Associates Inc., was quoted as saying in a 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education article.
She said the desire for confidentiality was spurred by the spread of stories about unintended consequences of open searches, including a president who said he was fired for expressing interest in another school and a president who said he lost a $10 million donation because an alumnus thought he wasn’t dedicated.
Peters said it’s probably true that a number of potential leaders would not apply without a promise of confidentiality. However, he said, the idea that closed searches produce better results is unsubstantiated.
Peters said some universities in other states have gone to some “pretty amazing” and even comical lengths to keep their presidential finalists secret.
He’s read reports of committee members being asked to shred their notes so they wouldn’t be subject to an open records request, a board of trustees member wearing a physical disguise while taking the yet-to-be-announced next president on a campus tour and search committee members being required to sign confidentiality agreements forbidding them from discussing the search in any way. He said other universities have made public a finalist list — with only one person on it.
Richardson said the Kansas Board of Regents’ closed searches do not violate open records or meeting laws because they deal with personnel matters.
“Those laws have no bearing on this,” she said. “This is hiring.”
Peters said he believes that’s true, to an extent.
“It probably would not violate the letter of the law, but to me it violates the spirit of the law to run a presidential search in secrecy at a public university,” he said.
If Regents do formally settle on a closed rather than an open search for the next KU chancellor, initial steps of the search will be voted on during open meetings, Richardson said.
The Regents will issue a request for proposals, then hire a search firm, she said. They will begin work of identifying people to serve on the search committee, and approve that list publicly.
They’ll also approve a formal charge for the search committee and a job description to be used in advertising for the position.
Then, discussions and interviews with individual candidates would take place in closed sessions, though the Regents are required by law to provide advance notice of the time and location of all meetings.
The Regents meet next on Oct. 19 at Fort Hays State.