Public university board’s secrecy disrespects faculty, public

by E Wayne Ross on April 5, 2016

The University of British Columbia’s problems with board secrecy, corporate mentalities, and presidential searches conducted under a shroud are not isolated occurrences, as you’ll see from the following account of what’s happening at Washington State University.

WSU regents’ secrecy disrespects faculty, public

April 5, 2016
Moscow-Pullman Daily News

By Terence L. Day

There would appear to be no cause to doubt Kirk Schulz’s qualifications to become the 11th president of Washington State University, but there is every reason to question the process by which he was appointed.

Let attorneys argue whether regents violated the state’s open meeting law. We don’t need lawyers to tell us what should be obvious to all: WSU regents disrespected the faculty and the public by conducting a secret search and faculty and citizens who support the university are rightly offended.

If what the regents did doesn’t violate Washington’s open meeting law, the law should be fixed.

In the good old days presidential finalists would be brought to campus and “run through the mill.” Finalists were expected to come to campus, conduct a public seminar, meet faculty and administrators and perhaps university constituents.

Unfortunately, today is a different time.

Sadly, secrecy in searches for new university presidents is becoming standard operating procedure throughout the nation. Secrecy is rationalized on the assertion that the best candidates for the job will refuse to participate in an open process, and that may well be true in some instances.

Private universities are entitled to conduct secret searches if they believe that best suits their ends; but public universities are public. What don’t WSU regents understand about the word “public”?

The very concept of public business requires openness, and speaking in code is an offense to reason.

Certainly all public business cannot be conducted in a fish bowl and appropriately isn’t, but selection of a public university president isn’t one of those things.

Regent Mike Worthy’s lame excuse that WSU’s attorney approved the secrecy with which Schulz was chosen is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s advice that youth should get up early with the lark, “… and if you get the right kind of lark, and work at him right, you can easily train him to get up at half past nine, every time.”

I asked WSU officials how long they have been conducting secret presidential searches. They haven’t been forthcoming, but I remember a day when they were very public.

WSU regents aren’t alone in using secret searches. My sources advise that many top-notch potential university presidents refuse to be candidates if their candidacy isn’t kept secret.

This dynamic is corrupting the search process from beginning to end. It encourages universities to turn the process over to “head hunters,” who work more for candidates than for the hiring university and claim a significant percentage of the successful candidate’s first year’s salary.

Regents are politically appointed and WSU’s regents, at least, are poorly equipped to understand the dynamic and culture of collegiality in higher education. Judging from their biographical sketches posted on the regents’ Web page, five and a half of nine members are in the business world, one is a politician and public administrator, one is an attorney, one a farmer and one is a WSU undergraduate student. I give Regent Lura Powell half credit for her experience as an administrator in the public technology sector and half credit for her experience as a manager in the private technology sector.

None of these backgrounds offer much understanding, sympathy or fealty to openly conducting the public’s business. Secrecy is the leadership style of the business world, not of academia.

Fortunately, faculty and students from sea to sea and from the heartland to the mountains are beginning to protest hiding searches from faculty and the public. It’s time the WSU community joined the protest.

Terence L. Day has been a Pullman resident for 43 years and retired in 2004 from the WSU faculty after 32 years. He has been a professional journalist for 54 years.