The Kansas Board of Regents plans to meet at Wichita State University on Thursday to hold a public vote naming WSU’s next president.
The unfortunate trick of this Halloween announcement is that it marks the end of a months-long search that has been shrouded in secrecy and anything but public.
The Board of Regents, which is responsible for overseeing state universities and colleges, decided last spring that the search for WSU’s next president would be closed to the public.
Since then, the university paid an Alabama headhunting firm about $95,000 to recruit potential candidates. Regents named a 20-member committee to review applications and conduct interviews, but everyone except chairman Steve Clark, a Wichita real estate developer and namesake of WSU’s new YMCA/Student Wellness Center, was under a gag order and prohibited from discussing the search.
Last week, the Regents met out of state — in a hotel conference room near the Kansas City airport — to interview finalists, according to a report by WSU’s student newspaper. That meeting also was conduced in secret: Finalists’ names were not released, and student reporters were asked to leave the room.
That means the first public questioning and vetting of WSU’s new leader — in fact, the first time we’ll even know the person’s name — will happen after he or she is introduced as president Thursday. And we won’t know who the other candidates were.
That’s shameful and unnecessary. And it’s another blow to transparency at a public university, funded with public dollars, that has made a habit of avoiding public scrutiny.
In 2012, late WSU President John Bardo was one of five finalists who toured the Wichita State campus, met with constituent groups and answered questions from media and the public during town-hall forums. Searches prior to that were open as well.
Closed searches for university presidents in Kansas are a recent trend, conducted under the dubious assumption that we’ll miss out on good candidates unless we keep the process secret. That’s simply not true, as countless presidential searches in the past — and in other states — have demonstrated.
Whomever is named WSU’s new president during this Halloween surprise will have plenty of work ahead. Over the next few years, the university will open a new $50 million building for its Barton School of Business, a new student wellness center, a new hotel and other projects on the 120-acre Innovation Campus.
Students and parents, meanwhile, are struggling to cover the cost of college, and universities are reeling from years of stagnant state funding for higher education. Keeping tuition and fees in check will continue to be a challenge.
Whatever the case, the Board of Regents’ next order of business after this announcement should be simple: Ditch the secret searches and pledge to return to an open, upfront process.
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