Does the regents' privacy argument really hold water?

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.”

  • Anonymous

    This whole thing is sort of a joke.

    Michigan and Madison have done pretty well in the president department, so the U’s claim that secrecy is necessary is just not true.

    The last time the U – under court order – was forced to reveal all of the candidates it was apparent that they were less than spectacular.

    It is pretty clear that no president of a high ranking operation was a candidate in this case. Perhaps the U was a little embarrassed about revealing the full deck?

    Having said that, I think we did very well in getting a new president from outside. Let us all hope that he is spectacularly successful and helps the U return to its former glory and esteem in the state.

    Bill Gleason, U of M faculty and alum

  • Aoftelie

    I think the need for privacy, not secrecy, today is even more paramount in these searches. As the article duly notes, the internet has amplified the ability to research and share by tremendous amounts.

    To the previous poster, Mary Sue Coleman (Michigan) and Kevin Reilly (Wisconsin) have been in there jobs since 2002/2004 respectively. The interwebz was much used much differently then. If they did searches today I guarantee it would be different.

    People need to understand the realities of interviewing for top jobs, and the effect of being revealed as a candidate, but not getting the offer, has on their current position. It makes things very difficult.

    How would we all feel if we were looking for a job at a competitor and we were outted to our company and being actively involved in the search?

    The privacy needs are relevant to attracting good candidates and has nothing to do with a conspiracy or desire to exclude people.

    • Anonymous

      Sorry I don’t buy your argument.

      More recent examples that involve current U of M personnel are instructive. Robert Jones, a U of M VP, was one of several public finalists for the presidency of the University of Hawaii president’s job. Being revealed as a finalist does not seem to have hurt his position at the U.

      Arlene Carney, another U of M administrators was on a short list of people publicly interviewed for the position of provost at Iowa. Her career at Minnesota does not appear to have been harmed either.

      • Aoftelie


        I think there is an important difference between a Dean/Provost and President. While educators in leadership admin positions do love education (the core of their interest in this field), they are also ambitious people who enjoy taking on new (higher) challenges (climbing the ladder). It is not uncommon and often expected they would interview for Presidential positions.

        And while there are many great Provost candidates, the U of M is such a large and complex institution that I imagine they also wanted to attract other sitting Presidents because the job is so complex.

        Again all the publicly mentioned names for these big jobs…notice not one you mention is a sitting President? Its a different situation for them and the dynamics are different (again the dynamics of being a finalist and not getting the job and dealing with any potential fall out).

        Further, the U had interviewed 3-4 serious candidates from what I heard, and while Kaler I think is a great choice, he was also the only candidate WILLING to be publicly named and others withdrew (presumably to avoid the very situation I have alluded about not getting the offer and dealing with your current employer).

        • Aoftelie

          We may just have to agree to disagree, and I am not arguing FOR secrecy. I just think if you want to attract sitting president’s as candidates (I think they would and the reasons are obvious) having it private would I believe be essential to garnering serious interest.

          If you only want Deans/Provosts it is not as big of an issue in my perspective.

        • Anonymous

          Again you are resorting to a phony issue. The U did NOT interview 3-4 serious candidates, at least they were not supposed to have according to the Open Meeting Law and would not admit it if they had.

          The job should be advertised with the condition that finalists will be announced. Don’t like it, don’t apply. I am not sure that it is realistic to expect that the U is going to get a sitting president as a candidate. Did
          Wisconsin? Did that matter?

          Many institutions have a fine record of turning out presidential caliber candidates from the provost position. Provosts at the University of Iowa have a particularly good track record in that department. The new president at Maryland was provost at Iowa. Biddy Martin was provost at Cornell and she seems to be doing a good job under trying circumstances at Wisconsin.

          Actually it is a lot easier to evaluate performance during of a candidate while provost, as we learned during Provost Sullivan’s tenure at Minnesota.

    • Anonymous

      Aoftelie, the problem is that the reasoning voiced by university search officials (which you’ve just reiterated) isn’t consistent. And there are too many examples where transparency has worked just fine. Although the Internet has indeed made information easier to obtain, the truly high-profile positions (the ones “needing” the most secrecy) have been covered by the major papers and wire services for a long time.

  • Jake poole

    You are dead wrong on this perspective.  I have participated in this process first hand and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth in most parties mouths and it does inhibit soliciting a good pool of applicants/candidates.  Confidentiality is most important for all the parties involved.  The Board is in charge and responsible as they are the “representatives” of the people.  Transparency is an overused word that the print media particularly thrives on in their own ineptness.

    • afriedrich

      Sorry for the delay. I’ve been away on family leave.

      I think we could have a more productive conversation if you could give examples or data that build a logical argument against my stance. Although your first-hand experience was, I’m sure, interesting, unfortunately it adds little weight to your argument as stated. You describe the “bad taste” or discomfort you or your colleagues had in dealing with a lack of confidentiality. But transparency in government is for the benefit of the general public, not for the personal comfort of those doing the work of the public.

      I’m open to changing my mind after viewing solid arguments. Feel free to contribute one, and we can talk.