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Secret selection process for choosing university presidents questioned

    Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 25

LOS ANGELES >> The high-profile and surprising choice of former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to head the UC system has fueled criticism over the secret selection process, echoing debates around the country about how higher-education leaders are chosen.

Supporters of a more open method say that better decisions are made when three or four finalists for a university presidency or chancellorship are formally identified to the public. At that point, faculty and students could have a chance to meet them before a final selection.

Some public universities in other states are required to do just that, but the UC and Cal State systems usually do not name more than one finalist and do not divulge the closed-door discussions that led to the nomination. Additionally, the final votes by the UC regents and Cal State trustees provide little information about the searches.

Though widely praised, the selection of Napolitano in July also came as a shock to many outside a relatively small circle of UC regents and other officials.

Some activists at California’s public campuses and elsewhere hope to change California’s higher-education hiring procedures.

"We want to see a transparent UC, where the people who are paid out of student tuition money are accountable," said Caroline McKusick, a leader of UAW 2865, which represents teaching assistants and other student employees in UC.

McKusick said that complaints about how Napolitano’s federal agency handled deportations of immigrants who crossed the border illegally should have been publicly aired before she was named as the sole nominee.

However, UC regents, Cal State trustees and some experts in academic hiring insist that the best candidates – and certainly someone like Napolitano, who had a sensitive job – would be scared away if the searches are fully transparent. They say that state laws and university rules allow closed-door discussions of such hirings with good reason. And they insist that search committees include student, alumni and faculty representatives for a wide range of views.

Sherry Lansing, the UC regent who headed the search committee that nominated Napolitano, declined to discuss specifics about the hiring discussions, citing a pledge of confidentiality. But speaking in general, Lansing said that confidentiality in UC executive searches is "the only way that you can have the broadest pool" of talented candidates.

Napolitano, who is scheduled to start the UC job on Sept. 30, has not responded to requests for interviews.

Some states such as Wisconsin and Hawaii have routinely issued the names of several finalists for top jobs at public universities and invited them to campus forums before one is selected. Florida has gone further in revealing the identities of larger groups of nominees early on.

But legislation to restrict such information was recently adopted in several states, and there is a long history of court challenges from media organizations seeking access to meetings and information. Louisiana State University officials, for example, are appealing a court decision that slapped them with heavy fines for not publicly disclosing their final candidates before they chose new president F. King Alexander, who previously had been head of Cal State Long Beach.

"It’s a big debate in my world," said James Ferrare, a senior vice president of the Association of Governing Boards, which represents college trustees and regents. He also is an executive at AGB Search, an executive search firm that specializes in higher education. Ferrare said public openness is more important than the potential loss of candidates fearing disclosure.

"Transparency is a much bigger word in higher education than it was in the past," said Ferrare, who has co-written a guidebook on college presidential searches. "I think students, faculty and staff are eager to be a more active participants and be more vocal about that."

Public forums can benefit the finalist candidates as well as the students and faculty, said Craig Smith, a professor communication studies at Cal State Long Beach. He and other faculty members are pushing for a more open search for Alexander’s replacement than the Cal State system conducted recently at other campuses.

"Serious candidates should be exposed to the campus. I think the give and take is important since they get a sense of the people and issues they may face," said Smith, who is director of the campus Center for First Amendment Studies.

Before a policy change in 2011, Cal State traditionally disclosed the names of three or so finalists for campus presidencies and held public visits, according to spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp. But after seeing good candidates drop out early, Cal State decided to leave disclosure to the discretion of the system chancellor and the trustee who heads the search.

None of the six searches since then, including recent ones at Cal State Los Angeles and Fresno, revealed finalists’ names, Uhlenkamp said.

"We are choosing from a bigger pool to give us the best possible candidate," he said. No decision has been made on how to handle the Long Beach situation, he added.

That new policy was criticized in a Fresno Bee editorial in May that said a more open process breeds more committed candidates: "It weeds out the tire-kickers and job-seekers simply looking for a bigger paycheck or a change of scenery."

Similarly, after Napolitano’s selection, UCLA’s Daily Bruin student newspaper called on UC regents to explain "how they picked an individual with no experience in California politics and no familiarity with its public universities."

The differences among states is personified in Kim Wilcox, who was hired last month as UC Riverside chancellor in a process that did not reveal competitors. Over the last two years, he had been publicly identified as a finalist, and later lost bids, to head public universities in Wisconsin, Wyoming and Hawaii. Wilcox declined to comment.

Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said her experience as a university executive in North Carolina, Arizona and in Cal State convinced her that confidentiality attracts the best leaders.

She said she has "a deep and abiding commitment to the First Amendment," but open searches have "a chilling effect" and often lead to the hiring of less experienced candidates than a more confidential process. Napolitano probably would not have come to UC if she had been publicly identified as one of several candidates, Broad said: "Look at the job she was in. What if the nation was in some kind of Homeland Security crisis?"

Such controversies probably will increase in the next few years as more top university executives in the baby boom generation retire, said Michael McLendon, a professor of higher-education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University.

With more states pushing for confidentiality and other constituencies advocating for information, McLendon said, "the question will be where do we draw the line to balance those interests."

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