Chancellor Search Should Be Transparent

As of this writing, the men’s basketball team from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is ranked number one in the country. Indeed, such a high ranking is not that unusual for teams of many sports (outside of football, of course) from UNC-Chapel Hill. Fans of the university expect No. 1 rankings, almost as if they are birthrights.

In March, however, a new No. 1 ranking was achieved by UNC–the UNC System, in this case. Turns out it is not that unusual, either, but we certainly don’t claim it as our birthright. On March 8, Corey G. Johnson of the Fayetteville Observer reported that UNC is second to none in secrecy in selecting public university leaders.

“North Carolina is the only state in the nation that selects the top leaders of all its public universities in secret,” Johnson wrote. “In 49 other states, the names of the finalists for university president or chancellor positions are made public, a Fayetteville Observer study shows. Six states release the names of all applicants.”

The Observer survey involved 118 university systems or individual schools. It found some states with “no single governing policy” and others with universities that did have closed processes, “but at least one school or university system in every state, except North Carolina, selects leaders in public.”

This revelation shreds a cherished UNC fiction. UNC officials had made it seem that secrecy in chancellor selection was de rigueur. As UNC President Molly C. Broad put it before the Associated Press in 1999 (during the last search for a new leader of UNC-CH), “These people are putting their careers on the line for you. It doesn’t take much to get them spooked.”

The process used by NC State in 2004 to select Chancellor James Oblinger was so secretive that search committee members boasted of having signed confidentiality agreements.

Neighboring states seem to find an open process valuable. Johnson quotes George Mason University (of Virginia) spokesman Dan Walsh on that university’s requirement for president finalists to give a public presentation. “We release the names because it is a way of keeping people engaged in what, for us, is our most important decision,” Walsh told him. “We believe the search should be an open process because of the role we play in our community and the fact that our president, by definition, is a significant figure in the region and state.”

In 2004, the University of Tennessee chose system president John D. Peterson using a highly visible, open search that involved a large panel of alumni, faculty, students, trustees, and staff sorting through applicants’ resumes and also included broadcasting over the Internet the interviews with the six finalists. Peterson told The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The more open the process was, the better, as far as I was concerned.”

Even a UNC school found an open process helpful. In 2004, Appalachian State chose Dr. Kenneth E. Peacock after allowing public questioning of its three finalists. Search committee member and former Faculty Senate chairman Paul Gates told the News & Observer that the open process “went off without a hitch” and “gave us a second look at the candidates and how they interacted with each group.”

Nevertheless, on March 19, 2008, ironically a day before Gov. Mike Easley’s declared “Sunshine Day” for openness in state government, the Greensboro News & Record reported that the identities of applicants for UNC-Greensboro’s chancellor position are secret. “The secrecy is typical of candidate searches for schools within the UNC system,” the paper reported as if stifling a yawn.

When UNC teams achieve No. 1, fans storm courts and celebrate in city streets. When UNC achieved No. 1 in secrecy, did they storm the secret meeting places and celebrate behind closed doors? As usual, we’ll never know.

Jon Sanders is a policy analyst and research editor at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C.