Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Will a More Open Search Produce a Better President at Oregon State?

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After being chosen in a closed search process, F. King Alexander didn’t last a whole year as president at Oregon State University. Now, the university’s Board of Trustees is taking a different approach to appoint his successor.

Alexander resigned under pressure in March 2021 after an investigative report raised questions about whether he had dealt appropriately with sexual-misconduct allegations against the football coach as president of Louisiana State University.

The Oregon State board named Alexander president in December 2019, after considering four finalists who were not named publicly. Finalists met only confidentially with a “stakeholder group” of 25 members that included a handful of faculty members and students.

To find their next president, Oregon State’s board is making the search more open by announcing a group of finalists who will visit campus later in May for public forums.

The new approach comes in response to concerns the board heard from the campus and community after the previous search, said Julie Manning, a member of the board and chair of an ad hoc committee created to advise the board on the search process.

Open or Closed?

Searches without any public vetting have become more common in higher education but are still in the minority, said Roderick J. McDavis, managing principal of AGB Search, a higher-ed-executive search firm, and former president of Ohio University.

Search firms and boards argue that confidentiality is necessary to protect candidates from displeasing their current employer.

What is most common in searches now, McDavis said, is a hybrid approach that maintains confidentiality for candidates until they are named finalists. It’s easier for candidates to tell their board they are a finalist for a job than if they are just one of a large pool applying for a new job, he said.

Faculty, staff, and students charge that the secrecy makes boards rely too heavily on the search firm for providing and assessing candidates. A faculty senate committee at Oregon State urged the board to ensure that “a search firm, if used, must facilitate the search process, not control it.”

A completely closed search can also give boards license to politicize their choice, critics say.

When a president is named at the end without any public input, a new leader can face a backlash on campus rather than building consensus around new plans and opportunities. In Colorado, for example, the announcement and eventual hiring of Mark Kennedy to lead the university system was met with protests and charges that the board had made a choice based primarily on partisan politics.

Kennedy resigned less than two years later, when the board’s elected members shifted from a majority of Republicans to a majority of Democrats.

‘Robust Due Diligence’

At Oregon State, the surprise and backlash about Alexander’s hiring was in part because board members seemed to not have considered his role in responding to charges of sexual misconduct at Louisiana State, despite the fact the controversy had been covered widely at the time.

In response, the board did a review of the entire search process, including a look at what the search firm and their own background check may have overlooked.

From that review, the board said, it was clear that a more open search was needed, including “announcing finalists, providing an opportunity for broad community engagement with finalists, and soliciting feedback on finalists before the Board makes its final decision” the board concluded in its review.

The board will also conduct its own background check, using a different company than the search firm, said Manning, the board member. The extra step is part of a “robust due-diligence process,” she said, but not necessarily a sign that there was anything wrong with the last search.

“I did not see any indication of a flawed process,” Manning said.

Despite the new process, some faculty members say the board has taken only token steps to involve the campus and community. Bringing finalists to campus is an improvement, Kathleen Stanley, a senior instructor in sociology and president of the faculty union, wrote in an email. But it’s not yet clear how the public can engage with the finalists or how their feedback will be used to evaluate the candidates, she added.

“Faculty have been given a chance to provide input at the beginning of the search and maybe at the end,” Stanley wrote, “but over all the process is still quite opaque and lacking in real community participation.”

Whether the board’s intentions and a new process result in a better hire should be evident by the end of the spring semester in early June. Finalists are set to visit the week of May 23, Manning said, with the announcement of a new president the following week.

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