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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What We're Up Against...

The outgoing president of the University of North Dakota -- who I am quite sure is a swell guy and I mean him no disrespect at all -- represents the state-of-the-art in thinking about university presidential searches: the more secrecy the better the process....

I'll give you a few of the highlights and then you can go read the whole editorial here, but:

That said, I believe our open records and meetings laws served to curtail the number of candidates. These laws in no small way were responsible for the fact that only one candidate was presented to the State Board of Higher Education and were thus responsible for some of the negative “stuff” that went on at the conclusion of the search.

Now, this is an interesting point, and one that could tested by an academic, but to simply assume that one candidate came forward because of openness? I can't say it did not any more than this chap can say it did. It's what we academics call a "testable hypothesis," but it sure isn't fact. Trusim, perhaps....

First of all, any would-be candidate who happened to be a sitting president would have been loathe to submit his or her name and endure the inevitable criticism “back home” with what should and could have been a 1 in 100 chance of ultimately being selected. Most presidents would find these odds not worth it. The result was no sitting presidents in the pool and relatively few provosts.

Ah, the Gold Standard: the other kids won't play because of the openness. This, of course, is belied by the fact that there are dozens of presidential searches, year after year, held in complete openness, and guess what? People apply for them. They fight for them. Why? They pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year...

Given the downsides, is there really a significant public interest in knowing all of the candidates early in a search when there may be 80 to 100 candidates? I don’t think so. North Dakota is one of a small number of states in which university officials are required to disclose all names and documents as soon as applications are filed. Likewise, North Dakota is among a small minority of states that do not permit at least some closed search committee meetings early in the search process.

Why yes, there are several great reasons. Cronyism, nepotism, the old-boy network...the fact is, the more open these searches are, the less the likelihood of such large decisions being made exclusively by small groups of extremely powerful people.

If a group of good people are selected to serve on a search committee and they have to operate in plain sight of one another, this is enough to make sure the search will be conducted in accordance with fairness and the law.

In other words, trust us. Nah....history is replete with examples where that burned the public.

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