Does the regents' privacy argument really hold water?

Kaler Johnson

Remember when the University of Minnesota Board of Regents defended its policy of keeping the names of presidential candidates private until the final round — and that final round had just one candidate (Eric Kaler of Stony Brook)?

The reason given was that the the media spotlight might scare away potential candidates — those who’d be in an awkward position if folks at their current institution found out they were job hunting.

I never took to that argument.

And I thought of it again last week when the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system chose four college presidents — after having announced three to five semifinalists’ names in each running.

What I’ve found since then: A lot of universities have released finalists’ names in their own presidential searches — and a number of those names are pretty weighty. So it can be done.  The university’s argument just seems more like preference than need.

Back in October, when MPR’s Tim Post was covering the U’s presidential search, Jan Asnicar of EFL Associates, an executive search firm in Kansas City, told him that when college presidents apply for other positions, their high profile gives them a heightened need for privacy, because all eyes are on them at home:

“With college presidents, since they embody the face of an institution, it is almost intensified for those folks.”

And yet President-Elect Eric Kaler of Stony Brook was just a provost, not a sitting president.

Higher-ed executive headhunter Bill Funk (who told the Student Press law Center that 60 percent of his searches are open) said provosts generally don’t have their names protected:

“If you’re a provost, vice president or other dean, there’s a pretty widely accepted notion that you will be revealed.”

Yet Asnicar said SUNY, which Kaler’s university is part of, is highly political. So that puts Kaler in the spotlight.

She told me:

“The higher the profile the institution, the more publicity, the stronger the reaction (that news of a presidential search would elicit).”

Considering what headhunter Funk said, I’m still not convinced.

Keeping in mind Funk’s figure of 60 percent open searches, I made a quick search of universities that have named multiple finalists. Those below — and it’s just a partial list — have at least one candidate who is a president or chancellor back home.

(Provosts and VPs are in there, too.)

I could go on.

Of course, the U of M isn’t alone in withholding names. Lots of other universities do. (Much of that may have to do with the growing use of corporate-style executive-search firms in the past decade or so, the law center reports.)

But the number of institutions that have held relatively transparent search processes, and the high profiles of the candidates they’ve attracted, calls into question the reasoning behind Kaler’s privacy.

True, the Internet has made it much easier to learn about presidential searches around the country. But haven’t the truly high-profile university presidencies always been covered by regional and national news media — including the Associated Press?

(And many of the examples above are from the past five years or so.)

For an example of transparency, listen to Sandra Chance, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, who told the Student Press Law Center the state of Florida mandates an open search process:

“You can have a completely open search from Day One until the hire, and guess what? Florida hasn’t fallen into the ocean yet.”