Editorials

The search for WSU’s next president shouldn’t be shrouded in secrecy

A committee appointed to help select Wichita State University’s next president says it wants public opinion and input.

But a four-question online survey and a single afternoon of pre-search forums — to be held on campus June 6, during summer break — are pathetic substitutes for a truly open, transparent search process.

The Kansas Board of Regents, which is responsible for overseeing state universities and colleges, decided last month that the search for WSU’s new president will be closed to the public.

That means none of the applicants’ names will be announced publicly. Finalists won’t answer questions in a public setting. Because search committees routinely hold interviews off-campus to evade journalists or others who might identify candidates, it’s possible that WSU’s next president could be appointed without ever having visited the university or met with faculty and students.

And that means the Board of Regents has opted to hire one of the state’s most powerful and highest-paid education leaders under a shroud of secrecy.

The board hired Wheless Partners, an Alabama-based headhunting firm, to recruit potential candidates. Steve Clark, a Wichita real estate developer and namesake of WSU’s new YMCA/Student Wellness Center, will chair a 20-member committee that will review applications, conduct interviews and forward finalists to the board.

The Regents opted for a closed search “in order to have a broader pool of candidates,” said board spokesman Matt Keith in an e-mail to The Eagle.

“Sitting presidents at other universities can be dissuaded from applying for an opening if their names will be disclosed during the process,” Keith said.

Really?

Closed searches for university presidents are a recent phenomenon in Kansas. Although an exemption in the Kansas Open Records Act allows public agencies to shield applicants’ names and resumes, the Regents previously have chosen to be more open.

In 2012, late WSU President John Bardo was one of five finalists — all current or recently retired university administrators — who toured the Wichita State campus, met with constituent groups and answered questions from the public during town-hall forums.

Now the Regents say they’ll miss out on good candidates unless they keep the process secret.

That’s a dubious argument in general, but an especially problematic way to search for a new leader at WSU, where several recent actions have bypassed public scrutiny. University officials barred reporters from a discussion about student fees, leased campus property to a private school without a public vote, hiked fees for a controversial new on-campus YMCA, and leased space at a privately built apartment complex without state approval, to name a few.

“If any university needs to do this search in an open, above-board, transparent way, it’s Wichita State,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

“There is a powerful symbolic statement that is made when the very first interaction you have with a president is to say, ‘We regard open and transparent governance as an annoyance,’” LoMonte said. “We shouldn’t be saying, ‘Public participation in campus decision making is something to be avoided and minimized at all costs.’”

Interestingly, when you look a level or two beneath the presidency — including recent searches for new deans at WSU’s College of Engineering and the W. Frank Barton School of Business — those finalists’ names are released, and they address public questions and concerns before they are hired.

Asked whether WSU officials would prefer an open search process for their president, spokeswoman Lainie Mazzullo said, “All elements of the search are guided by the Kansas Board of Regents.”

That’s true. So the Regents should return to their previous practice of open searches at public universities, which are funded by public dollars. If they’re hesitant to do so, state lawmakers should take up the cause and demand transparency.

It’s the best way to ensure integrity in the process, that a diverse variety of well-qualified candidates receives consideration, and that the person who emerges is the right choice.

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