LTTE: An open search might yield the best WSU president


I hope the Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR) uses an Open Search process to select the next permanent President of Wichita State University.  University presidents work in public to serve multiple constituencies, and an open search better approximates this extraordinarily difficult job in 2020.

Last week Governor Laura Kelly supported an open search, magnifying the sentiments of many students, faculty and staff at WSU. She argued that “the community deserves reassurance that there will be resolution.”  As a department chair and faculty member, I agree with the Governor, although in this column I would like to focus on which search model would be most effective in finding our new university CEO.

The role of university president has expanded beyond what is reasonable to expect from any one individual – the job is part scholar, part teacher, part administrator, part lobbyist, and part salesperson.

We ask them to be examples of our ideals and rescue us from budget crises.  We ask them to be our institution’s saints and saviors.  We ask them to model good citizen behavior, like wearing masks and social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic, even as we ask them to be our public face and personally connect to all Shockers and Shocker supporters.

Closed searches, like the one that selected President Jay Golden earlier this year, have the advantage of attracting applicants who do not want their current employer to know they are interested in a new job, in order to avoid a loss of support or even termination.  To maintain confidentiality, the Search Committee needs to be small (the group that interviewed Golden had 20 members), and to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements about their work.  Then the nine members of the KBOR, along with their staff, can pick from what will hopefully be a bigger pool of talented applicants.

The next president of Wichita State will do lots of work in closed meetings of less than 25 people, especially in managing core staff, reaching out to donors, and meeting with state and federal elected officials.  But they also will need to communicate their vision to thousands of students and alumni, hundreds of faculty and staff, and the Kansas and global communities that WSU serves.

An open search process, with public virtual and in-person events open to students, faculty, staff and community members, will force prospective presidents to demonstrate that they can inspire and lead in the chaotic environment of U.S. higher education, expanding access to students of all backgrounds.  It will force them to demonstrate that they understand the budget realities of Kansas in 2020.  They would preview how they would manage WSU as it serves Kansas families, fosters economic development, and innovates for the entire world.

I have a personal interest in an open search, if only because as a member of the Faculty Senate I would have a better understanding of the process. As a Political Scientist I would have an opportunity to observe firsthand how a community under stress chooses its leaders.

Unlike KBOR and Jay Golden, I do not know the reasons why his presidency ended after only nine months – that above my pay grade and job status.  But I do know that our next leader will have to work in public to help us navigate the worst crisis that American higher education has ever experienced.

Because the job is to manage near-chaos in public, a public interview process has distinct advantages.