A final word on the Kent State ‘secret search’

As a hardcore utilitarian, I can’t complain much about Kent State’s decision to conduct its presidential search in secret. After all, utilitarians focus on consequences and outcomes — the greatest good for the greatest number. When this “secret search” ended, the outcome was a good one. We like this new president and wish her good fortune.

Nevertheless, I was compelled to criticize the process because it violated the university’s own policies on transparency and likely violated the Ohio open-records laws. The end does not justify the means.

It’s impossible to justify a decision by a public institution to deliberately ignore transparency. But I do understand the intent. A private search encourages top-notch prospects (most of whom are not even seeking new employment) to become candidates without placing their current positions in jeopardy. It’s done this way in the private sector every day.

Adding further to the utilitarian argument, I’m told by a source inside the administration that presidents hired through private searches enjoy a tenure twice as long as those hired in public searches. I’ve not seen the data, so I can’t judge the validity of the claim.

We know Dr. Warren wasn’t seeking a new gig, so it’s possible she would have passed on the Kent State position had the search been public. It was the search firm hired by KSU that sought her out. The same may be true of the other unnamed finalists. But we can’t ask them, because we don’t know who they are.

Deontologists will say any utilitarian argument here is bullshit. It’s one thing to bend the rules a bit, it’s another to ignore them. As a society, we can’t abide selective compliance to rule and law. And though only a court can decide if Kent State violated the law, it certainly appears it violated the intent of that law.

Other outcomes

The case study for “how not to.” The “secret search” is now case study other public universities can benefit from. Let’s hope they do.

Positive branding for the J-School. By expressing public dismay in a resolution, the faculty showed journalism insiders (local and national) that we stand on principle here. The resolution drew support from 28 or 32 faculty members. It also earned stronger headline than warranted by resolution’s mild wording — another positive outcome. (Headline: JMC faculty condemn search process).

A full-page ad in the Daily Kent Stater gained a smaller group of backers, but turned out to be the campaign’s most potent branding statement, as this story in Poynter demonstrates. Of course, positive branding for the J-School must be weighed against potential internal damage that comes with criticizing the folks who fund your program. You know what they say: Never wound the king.

(Disclosure: I wrote all but one sentence of that ad.)

Precedent-setting sins. If we’re allowed to conduct private presidential searches, what about all other positions at the university? If we close the doors on the hiring process, we invite cronyism, nepotism and all sorts of skullduggery that can’t be tolerated in a public institution.

The media were late to the party. This secret search has been in the local headlines for 6 weeks, but the story is about 8 months late. Had the media done their work last August, when the Search Committee released its plan, they would have seen the open-records issue coming. Had they reported it then, we might not be talking about it now. (It’s also troubling that no one on the Search Committee — including faculty members — voiced public objection to the process.)

Damage to reputation and public trust. KSU administrators had to know that the media, at some point, would ask to see the search records. And they had to know there would be backlash from the press when they refused. Yet they chose a strategy that obscured those records, using a Pennsylvania search firm to run interference. And if the Akron Beacon Journal reports are correct (no one has denied them), the administration actually shredded the notes taken by search committee members.

It’s inside baseball. I’m not convinced external stakeholders, including most alumni, give two shits about the whole thing. It doesn’t affect their lives. I also don’t expect Kent State’s black eye will take long to heal, especially with a new and charismatic president taking over in July. The secret search is already yesterday’s news, and now we’re on to the next BuzzFeed quiz.

But if we aren’t vigilant, if we don’t insist that our public institutions conduct their business in public view, we’re giving up on a pretty important piece of democracy.

Update 4/26/14: This made-for-print-news story is now TV news in the region. Here’s a story from Cleveland’s 19 Action News.



2 thoughts on “A final word on the Kent State ‘secret search’

  1. Bill, I agree with you in principal. However, as you stated, there is a case to be made for private searches of key personnel prospects. The precedent has been set by the military, federal government and private business…and embedded in our privacy and freedom of information laws for the very reason that you stated. Sometimes privacy issues and FOIA clash. In those instances, privacy usually trumps FOIA.

  2. Private searches will usually yield a better result, and that’s the dilemma. But when we allow the committee to go behind closed doors, we must be assured we can trust the process. Unfortunately, this administration hasn’t engendered that level of trust. In addition, you simply can’t ignore the legal requirement. Like it or not, you have must observe the Ohio Open Records Act, regardless of how it affects the search. I’ve yet to read a single media report in which an “expert” on open records agrees with the KSU position.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *