Editorial: WSU deserves to meet its presidential finalists

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Editorial: WSU deserves to meet its presidential finalists

As the governing body that oversees state institutions, one of the foremost responsibilities of the Kansas Board of Regents is naming university presidents. By choosing secrecy over transparency in the selection process, the Regents deny university communities the opportunity to interact with and thoroughly vet their next president.

As with the last three Regents-sanctioned presidential searches, Wichita State’s next top executive will be named without the Regents publicly announcing any of the candidates or finalists considered for the job.

This secrecy has been perpetuated nationwide by search firms that prioritize candidates’ confidentiality over all else. However, comparative data compiled by the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information indicates that states conducting open presidential searches are just as likely to attract qualified candidates as those that shut the public out of the process.

By contrast, closed searches make a firm’s job much easier, because they can readily recycle candidates passed on by other universities. The other big winner in a closed search is the insider candidate. Brechner Center Director Frank LoMonte told The Sunflower that insider candidates are the “primary beneficiary” of closed searches.

In recent years, Wichita State has redefined itself through public-private partnerships — widening the scope of who could be considered an “insider” candidate. With this heightened potential for corporate influence, it’s especially important that WSU’s presidential search process be as open and transparent as possible.

Closed searches deprive search committees of the single best source of background information on unfamiliar candidates — their current employers. If a candidate has exhibited disqualifying behavior in the past, giving their current colleagues a chance to come forward and speak to their suitability could save the university from an embarrassing presidential scandal.

Just last year, Ithaca College’s student newspaper broke the story that their newly appointed president had a 17-year-old no contest plea to a charge of sexual abuse. Open searches tend to preempt such scandals by giving the public an opportunity to thoroughly vet finalists.

Public backlash recently prompted the board of regents to halt an open presidential search at the University of South Carolina after it came to light that all 11 semifinalists for the job were men.

Wichita State has had 13 presidents — all white men. An open presidential search would give the public oversight to ensure that a diverse cast of candidates are given serious consideration.

Perhaps most importantly, an open search would bring finalists to campus to interact with students, faculty, and staff, in the same way that dean and provost candidates are required to.

Finalists would take questions and share their visions for the university with the community at large — not just the board of regents. CEOs answer to boards. Presidents answer to constituents.

As the Regents prepare to name a search committee chair, they must not subscribe to the myth that closed searches yield better presidents. Prioritize WSU’s interests over outside firms’. Open up the search process.

That’s not to say we should be privy to every resumé glanced at and discarded by the search committee, but once the field is narrowed down to serious contenders, it’s the public’s right to know.

If a finalist is too worried or embarrassed to have their name announced publicly, they can back out. We don’t want them.