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Week of May 20, 2013

Faculty perspective

We need a more open presidential search process, not a more secret one: There is a way to achieve that and preserve candidate privacy

 

By Camron Michael Amin
Professor of History
UM-Dearborn

A recent article on AnnArbor.com by Kellie Woodhouse* suggests that some in the leadership of the University of Michigan strongly prefer to prioritize the privacy of candidates at the expense of all else in the upcoming presidential search. This would apply to finalists as well as the general pool of applicants in the initial stages of the search. The rationales offered for this top-secret approach are problematic. But even if one concedes the need for a top-secret presidential search, there is a way of including the wider university community’s perspective in the penultimate phase of the search process: the assessment of finalists for the position. An effort to be more open in the last phase of the search would give each finalist a chance to articulate a vision for the university to a wider audience before taking the job, and, to get a better feel for the diverse perspectives we have regarding the common challenges and opportunities we face.

A critique of top secrecy

The last sentence of the article by Woodhouse undermines the “logic” of the rationales offered in defense of a top-secret search. “‘There will be an ample number of candidates in the final process,’ said (Earl) Lewis. ‘The University of Michigan has never had a challenge in finding individuals.’” (Emphasis mine.) If we have never had a problem finding candidates, and we have not always had a “top-secret” process (as we know from the 1996 search), then we do not need a top-secret process (whatever its alleged merits). Such a high level of a secrecy would be a choice, not a requirement or tradition.

In the article, there is also an odd conflation between having a more open process and undermining the regents’ responsibility to make this decision.  Of course, the search committee’s input — like any input the regents receive — will be advisory. The regents make all decisions; nothing is official until they say so. I’m not sure who would credibly assert otherwise. Insinuating that a more open process undermines the authority of the regents is mere rhetoric setting fire to a straw man. A university president who enjoys the trust of the regents and establishes a collaborative relationship with them is clearly in everyone’s interest. But, so too is establishing a constructive relationship with the rest of the university community.

Each and every non-interim, senior leader on my campus in Dearborn has participated in some public presentation of finalists — dean, provost and chancellor. These public appearances provided an opportunity for us worker bees to appreciate what the leadership’s priorities are and what each of the finalists is bringing to the table. Moreover, these appearances created an opportunity for us to share some informed advisory feedback with the regents via the search committee. Regents make the hire, but should they do so without any sense of how the campus understands that final choice? Not ideally. 

Yes, this might make things awkward for the finalists back at their home institutions, but they have been adequately compensated for the risks that come with that level of responsibility. To be blunt — they should be able to handle that pressure, not demand insulation from it. They are not being exposed to the same professional or financial vulnerability that an untenured faculty member or a staff member or a LEO I/II lecturer faces year in and year out — at all.  

When all the other rationales are set aside, the essential reason for a top-secret presidential search is that it is what “elite” institutions do. More specifically, it is what private, elite institutions do. The article implies, and it may be true, that other publics like the University of Minnesota only have more open searches because they are compelled to do so by law. They could not be doing it because a more open process has merit, or symbolizes the ideals of the institution.

So, it looks like we are going to assert our public prestige as an elite institution by embracing absolute secrecy in the recruitment of our leadership. I can unhappily accept that as a reality, but I cannot embrace it as a value.  

An alternative: Balancing candidate privacy and process transparency

I hope the regents think about how to balance the need for candidate privacy against the need to provide an opportunity to the university community to weigh in on the finalists. 

Shortlisted candidates could submit an essay detailing their vision for U-M as president. It would necessarily highlight their understanding of our system and omit discussions of their experience. So, it would be anonymous but not generic (e.g. “Research is important,” “It’s all about the students,” and similar platitudes). The finalists’ essays could be made available online and the university community could provide feedback via Web-based surveys. The College of Arts Sciences and Letters at UM-Dearborn recently surveyed the attendees of candidate open forums during its most recent dean search using an online survey. Such surveys will be a routine part of the president’s future evaluations, so there is no reason not to include online surveys of the university community as part of the presidential search process.

The search committee and regents could take survey results into account in making their final ranking of candidates and selection respectively.  They will have the finalists’ other application materials in hand to assess if the “talk” in the essay matches up well with “walking” the candidates have been doing over the course of their careers. If Candidate X’s essay gets the most positive survey response and the Regents also judge the person to be the best, then that would add a meaningful layer of legitimacy to the administration of President X when it gets underway. Even if we imagine a less desirable scenario, one in which finalist selected by the Regents was not the author of the best-liked essay, there is much potential value for the university. This is because the new president will know more about the priorities of the campus community and be better prepared to engage with them.

This alternative process — with survey feedback provided on the basis of candidate essays — would not be as good as a process that involved listening to candidates articulate their visions for U-M in an open forum (and, perhaps, field a few questions). However, it would further transparency, in that the university community would know something substantive about their next president before that person takes the job. It would build more respectful inclusivity and consultation regarding a vision for the university’s future into the search process itself. It would do this and yet maintain the confidential environment this class of university presidential candidates seems to have engineered for itself. The realities of the presidential search process do not require top-secrecy. The benefits of a more open search process do not have to be sacrificed.

*Kellie Woodhouse, “Hunt for Next University of Michigan President Likely to be an Intricate, Top-Secret Search,” AnnArbor.com, April 28, 2013 (annarbor.com/news/university-of-michigan-presidential-search/; accessed on May 2, 2013).


The Faculty Perspectives page is an outlet for faculty expression provided by the Senate Assembly. Prospective contributors are invited to contact the Faculty Perspectives Page Committee at faculty.perspectives.page@umich.edu. Essays are the opinion of the author. The chair this year is Annette Haines. Submissions are accepted in electronic form and are subject to review by the committee. Essay lengths are restricted to one full printed page in The University Record, or about 1,500 words.

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