Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Keep the search open

As University of Toledo officials look for a successor to President Lloyd Jacobs, who plans to step down next year, they might review the recent presidential search process at Kent State University — as a guide to what not to do.

The excessively secretive process at that public university yielded a tainted outcome, no matter how talented Kent State’s new president, Beverly Warren, turns out to be. The contempt shown by university leaders for Ohio’s freedom of information law — however weakened it has become in recent years by bad court decisions and legislative backsliding — must not be duplicated here. Citizens need to hold UT officials to their promise of an open, transparent, accountable, and inclusive search.

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Kent State essentially turned over its search process, which cost $250,000, to a private company and allowed that firm to define which records related to the search were subject to public disclosure. Search committee members say notes from their meetings and other documents were destroyed.

So much for academic values of free inquiry. In an advertisement this week in the campus newspaper, Kent State journalism faculty said they were “embarrassed” by the university’s stonewalling.

Kent State officials say they have released a large volume of search documents and insist their search process violated no laws or policies. A spokesman blandly told the Akron Beacon Journal, which the university had repeatedly stiffed on records requests, that “we have turned over all records that are relevant.”

But that wasn’t their call: State open-records and open-meeting law doesn’t allow a public body, supported by Ohioans’ tax dollars, to decide for itself which official information it must disclose and which it can hide or even shred. It doesn’t provide an effective exemption for material held by an outside search firm.

And it doesn’t have to be that way. Youngstown State University and the University of Akron are conducting their presidential searches with an appropriate degree of openness. They offer much better models for UT.

As the search for UT’s next president proceeds, trustees must make their priorities clear to the university community and the broader community. They cannot hide behind the consultant they have hired or hand off their work to a private firm. They cannot rig the search for a favored candidate, internal or external.

Details of the search process, including expenses incurred, must be public. The names of all candidates whom the trustees consider seriously must be disclosed at an appropriate time so that the diversity of the field — geographic and otherwise — can be evaluated.

Candidates’ desire for secrecy, so as not to tip off current employers, should not be controlling; that would display a lack of commitment to openness. Interviews of the finalists should be conducted in public.

Issues of presidential pay and perquisites also should be ventilated publicly. Citizens’ participation in the search process should be solicited, not merely tolerated, or worse, discouraged.

The signs are good so far. UT trustees are using a dedicated Web site to provide information about the search and gather public input. Their community advisory committee will include UT students.

If UT sustains such transparency, that will prove an appealing alternative to the kind of presidential search Kent State conducted — something this university and community can’t afford.

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