Faculty express concern, propose resolution for more open presidential search

(Jake McLernon)

L-R: President Merten and  Governor Bob McDonnell

The confidentiality of the search process for the next university president has concerned at least some faculty, leading the Faculty Senate to vote this Wednesday, Nov. 9, on a resolution calling for a more open search.

The concern among some faculty is that the next president could be chosen without any public questioning of the final candidates.

“We need to make sure we have an open process and candidates are allowed to have questions asked,” said Suzanne Slayden a chemistry professor and member of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee which proposed the resolution.

Alan Merten announced his retirement last spring. Since June, the presidential search committee has been looking to find a successor to the long-time president. An appointment is expected to be announced in early 2012, according to Lovey Hammel, chair of the search committee.

The Faculty Senate resolution to be proposed Wednesday says, “the Faculty Senate supports a search process that includes multiple final candidates’ participation in open meetings with faculty prior to selection of the next president and strongly disapproves a search process that does not include such meetings.”

Questions about the process openness with the final candidates were raised at a forum with the Chair and Vice-Chair of the search committee on September 14.

According to Hammel, a closed selection scenario is possible but she said it’s too early to determine whether it will actually happen.

Hammel said that a candidate’s confidentiality is important in the search and the identity isn’t revealed until the university considers the person to be a finalist for the position. The concern of some faculty, however, is that the Board of Visitors will not release the final candidates’ names to the public prior to an official selection announcement.

The resolution being proposed to the Faculty Senate by the Executive Committee, a committee within Faculty Senate, also says, “a candidate who does not meet with faculty in an open meeting as part of the search process fails to demonstrate proven commitment to transparency throughout the university in all aspects of its operation.”

A passing vote on the proposed resolution would be sent to the Presidential Search Committee who could then decide whether or not to act upon the Faculty Senate's recommendation. In other words, the resolution would be non-binding.


National Trend

When the University of Virginia announced their decision that Teresa A. Sullivan would become the president of the university; the decision was kept secret until the formal announcement was made in early 2010, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch. The presidential search committee recommended a list of final candidates to the Board of Visitors who then made their final decision.

Prior to the announcement, there was no final list of candidates released to the public.  Students, faculty, and staff did provide input to the search committee but there was no opportunity for them to ask questions of the final candidates. Rather, Sullivan was chosen solely by the presidential search committee and Board of Visitors.

Full confidential searches for university presidents like the one at UVA is a growing trend, said Jan Greenwood the president and chief operating officer of Greenwood Asher and Associates, the search firm handling Mason’s search for a new university president.

As a result, Greenwood said many public universities have trouble attracting good candidates if the candidate’s name is made public in the search.

Greenwood and her partner at the firm, Betty Turner Asher, published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in April on the topic. Greenwood said the question of whether to use a confidential or public search for leadership positions really began emerging in the early 1990s.

“Presidents who looked for other job opportunities faced negative consequences,” Greenwood said in the article. “They were at risk of being fired, and if they were not offered a job, or turned an offer down, they often found their leadership weakened at their home university.”

Greenwood said many candidates who come from leadership positions are reluctant to apply for a position at another institution if the search is public.

“In general, highly qualified university leaders will participate in confidential search processes, but rarely will they risk involvement in public searches,” Greenwood later said in the article.

That trend is “very troublesome,” according to Mason Public Policy professor James H. Finkelstein,  who said there is no research to back up the claim that confidential searches work better than public searches.

“[There is] no evidence that offering final candidates full confidentiality is [the] only way to keep good candidates in the pool,” said Finkelstein.

While Finkelstein agrees that confidentiality is important in the initial stages of the search, he believes final candidates should be evaluated by other members of the university who don’t serve on the presidential search committee.

Mason’s current presidential search committee includes 25 members with four faculty members, one student, 11 members of the Board of Visitors, and nine other people affiliated with the university. Finkelstein said the faculty is hoping the search committee will invite the final candidates to campus and take input from other members of the university.


1996 Search for Alan Merten

Prior to becoming president at Mason in 1996, Merten served as the dean of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University from 1989 to 1996.

When Merten applied to the executive position at Mason he became one of four finalists for the post to go through the vetting process, said Press Secretary Dan Walsch.

The four candidates then met with university faculty, staff and students. Based on that experience, members of the university provided input to the search committee.

While the final stages of the 1996 search were open to the university, Greenwood said times have changed and university governing bodies have emphasized the importance of confidentiality.

Greenwood who was a search consultant and partner with the search firm involved with Merten’s appointment in 1996, said her search firm prefers candidates meet with the university public, but times have changed, she said.

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