The Secret Society of Kent State

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Update 4/13/14: Latest news story reveals a tale that’s turning downright Nixonian, including shredding of documents that belong in the public domain. I’m embarrassed that so few within the KSU community are going public with their outrage and just as troubled that I must.

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At Kent State, we kinda wish the last few weeks were an April Fool’s Day joke. Four times since March 12, our university has been in the headlines, each time owing to the administration’s failure to comply with public-records law.

Why all the secrecy? That’s what reporters from the Akron Beacon Journal have been asking for months. After all, Kent State is state-supported institution, which means we’re not exempt from sunshine laws. Like it or not, our business is the public’s business.

At the core of the controversy is the search committee that selected Kent State’s new president, Beverly Warren. The university has refused to reveal detailed financial records of the process — which cost over $250,000. But perhaps more important than the costs is the administration’s refusal to reveal the names of all the candidates considered for the job. Experts say that decision puts Kent State on the wrong side of the law and creates a perception of an organization unwilling to act in the public interest.

Translation: It’s a public relations nightmare.

A Secret Society.  Administrators say they agreed to protect the identity of candidates so as to attract the very best. In other words, some candidates said they wouldn’t apply for the job if their names were made public. That’s a fine utilitarian rationale, but there’s one problem: It’s against the law. Open-records laws were established to ensure transparency by taxpayer-funded institutions. And you don’t get to change that law because it doesn’t fit your recruiting strategy. The end does not justify the means — not in this context.

The legal issue appears clear-cut, at least according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Sunshine Law Manual.

“There is no public records exception which generally protects resumes and application materials obtained by public offices in the hiring process,” according to the manual. That obligation extends to materials “in the sole possession of private search firms used in the hiring process.” (Akron Beacon Journal)

Throughout this 3-week stretch of negative publicity, Kent State administrators didn’t flinch. Outgoing President Lester Lefton remained in the bunker while his minions dealt with the press. The legal office appeared arrogant and the PR staff did the best it could to defend the indefensible. Every PR professional understands this dilemma.

Will long-term damage result? Probably not. The new prez arrives in July, and most KSU stakeholders will (I hope) give her the usual honeymoon period. If she chooses a transparent management style, many who were alienated by the Secret Society should rally around her. I know I will.

If you make your living in a journalism school, the administration’s actions are a national embarrassment and an affront to freedom of information. If you embrace best practices in public relations, the administration’s stonewalling tactics are nonsensical.

Story links for those who like to drill deeply:

Beacon Journal’s quest for KSU transparency spans three months

Secrets of the Search (editorial)

KSU gives President Lester Lefton a bonus and high praise, denies access to more records

Jim Tressel among 19 applicants for University of Akron presidency

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