N.C. State doesn’t need a chancellor afraid of public scrutiny

RALEIGH — Now they’re signing confidentiality agreements at North Carolina State University to keep the public from learning anything about the chancellor search at the state’s largest public university.

The only name to be made public will belong to the person selected by the search committee. The committee chairman, Robert B. Jordan III, an N.C. State trustee, told The News & Observer that he wouldn’t agree to lead the search without the confidentiality.

By the sound of it, this process will be slightly more hush-hush than the last one, when Marye Anne Fox was chosen to lead N.C. State. In 1998, the selection committee made a de riguer announcement of the three finalists’ names — the day before the selection of Fox was announced. That was after the selection committee violated the state’s open-meetings law by hiring the search firm in secret.

Nevertheless, even back then open searches for university executives were the norm, not the exception. As the N&O reported Nov. 17, 1997, “In most public university systems, the pool of candidates is kept under wraps, but a set number of finalists is made public.”

The public in general, and the N.C. State community in particular, deserve a voice in the hiring process. They certainly deserve more than the condescending public forum where those who can attend get to list the qualities they’d like to see in the next chancellor, receive a pat on the head, and are told they’ve contributed their part, now run along.

The argument for secrecy has always been the potential harm that could come to those whose candidacy becomes known. UNC President Molly Broad, as reported in the May 28 N&O, said candidates “could face accusations of disloyalty while they have fund-raising proposals out to major donors or are in the midst of major planning projects.”

In 1999, in a statement lampooned here, Broad defended the secret selection process at UNC-Chapel Hill that led to James Moeser’s hiring by saying “These people are putting their careers on the line for you. It doesn’t take much to get them spooked.”

It seems doubtful that someone academically talented enough to merit consideration for one of the top jobs in the UNC system would suffer serious reprisals in their present job, but let’s grant the argument long enough to ask: Is an easily spooked person really the best candidate for a major public university in the first place? How is spookability an argument in favor of secret selections?

Certainly, there is a place for some secrecy. It makes sense for the early rounds of the nomination and winnowing down of candidates to be secret. Some people could be testing the waters, others may be nominated but not interested. But once the committee has narrowed its search down to a small group of finalists, the public should have a say. Not just for the sake of openness, but also because it would give the public confidence in the process itself. Furthermore, it would allow the committee to see who could garner public support and who would shy away from the inevitable — and crucial — public scrutiny to follow. A wider spectrum of people will be able to comment, some perhaps having pertinent information on the candidates (favorable or unfavorable) previously unknown to the few people on the search committee.

Other universities, including other UNC schools, have followed the open route in selecting chancellors. Appalachian State allowed public questioning of its three finalists this spring. The names of East Carolina’s finalists were leaked to the press, causing one to drop out.

Nearby University of Tennessee chose a new system president this spring after a highly visible, open search. Tennessee decided to forgo secrecy after scandals ousted the system’s last two presidents within two years. UT officials felt it was important to restore public trust in the process, so they opted for openness. The committee selected University of Connecticut provost John D. Peterson after a large panel of alumni, faculty, students, trustees, and staff sorted through applicants’ resumes, and they broadcast over the Internet the interviews with the six finalists.

The new UT president told The Chronicle of Higher Education April 22 that the open process not only attracted “an excellent pool” of candidates, but also that it would help him because it restored public trust. “The more open the process was, the better, as far as I was concerned,” he said.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, chairman of the UT Board of Trustees, told the Chronicle that he “was convinced an open process would restore confidence and attract the right caliber of candidates.”

Appalachian’s open process “went off without a hitch” and “gave us a second look at the candidates and how they interacted with each group,” search committee member and former Faculty Senate chairman Paul Gates told the N&O. Tennessee’s open process pleased the selection committee, instilled public confidence in the selection, and resulted in a president whose view of openness is the more open, the better.

How could we not want the same for N.C. State?