UMD owes public transparent presidential search

America is littered with failed college presidencies and damaged higher-education institutions all tracing back to a single cause: An obsession with projecting a favorable image that overrides everything else, including the public’s safety.

University of Maryland, College Park, President Wallace Loh was too slow to realize that, when you live by secrecy, you die by secrecy. Mr. Loh treated public participation in campus governance as an annoyance to be minimized — sneaking through the monumental decision to switch to the Big Ten athletic conference in an illegally closed meeting — so it’s fitting that his presidency is ending with UMD trustees knifing him in the shadows.

Higher education has never been more mismanaged, and it has never been more secretive. That’s not coincidental.

From Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky train wreck to today’s still-unfolding scandal at Michigan State, where former president Lou Anna K. Simon is facing criminal charges for lying to cover for a serial sexual predator, we are learning the terrible costs when the people who run public universities lose sight of their priorities. Colleges are fixated on “protecting the brand” when they should be fixated on protecting their students.

Higher education has a secrecy addiction. Curing that addiction starts with reforming the unjustly secretive hiring process in which most universities, including Maryland’s, choose their presidents.

Not long ago, it would be unthinkable for a public university — one of the most powerful agencies of state government — to select a president without bringing several finalists to campus and debating their merits in the open. But then trustees started privatizing the decision, turning over control to high-priced “headhunting” firms.

These executive-search firms thrive on secrecy. Their greatest asset is their stockpile of candidates. If those candidates get scratches and dents when they fare poorly under public scrutiny, that’s bad for business.

So headhunters have convinced trustees that the right amount of public input is “zero.” It’s now commonplace for the public to learn nothing about the selection process except the winner’s name, so there’s no telling whether a diverse field of qualified people received consideration or whether the best one prevailed.

Despite what headhunters insist, presidencies birthed in secrecy frequently crash and burn. First, people who haven’t been thoroughly vetted turn out to have buried scandals. Recently, people at New York’s Ithaca College were shocked to learn that their president had a criminal conviction for sexually abusing a client while working as a therapist — a fact that should have been publicly deliberated during the hire, not exposed by reporters a year into her presidency.

Second, people who haven’t been forced to visit the campus and interact with ordinary citizens may be a personality mismatch. That’s how the University of Missouri got Tim Wolfe, who turned out to have the diplomatic skills of a doorstop when confronted with racial unrest. The university is still digging itself out from the financial and enrollment crater that his presidency left behind.

Third, people hired in sneaky backroom deals, unsurprisingly, think that sneaky backroom deals are a proven successful way to do business.

Headhunters insist that the best-qualified candidates won’t apply unless the hire is made in secrecy because they don’t want anyone back home to know they’re job-hunting. So they’ve engineered the entire selection process around making sure word never gets back to the applicant’s current campus. And that means nobody on the soon-to-be president’s home campus is asked if that person is a harasser or an embezzler, or can be trusted with the safety of 30,000 students.

You literally wouldn’t hire a person to mow your lawn if they told you, “Don’t talk to anyone whose lawn I’ve mowed over the past seven years.” Shouldn’t we be at least a careful in hiring the CEO of a public agency with a $2 billion yearly budget?

If we’re genuinely concerned that sitting presidents might get fired for considering other jobs, then that’s what we should outlaw: retaliation. Instead of passing laws that exclude the public from presidential hiring decisions, let’s pass laws protecting presidents against vengeful trustees. Then there’ll be no excuse for secrecy.

The University of Maryland owes the public a transparent, inclusive search that produces a president who’ll take office with the community’s confidence. Hiring a total stranger is the higher-ed equivalent of marrying a mail-order bride: It might produce a long and happy relationship, but the odds are greatly against it.

Frank D. LoMonte (flomonte@ufl.edu) is a media lawyer and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, a think-tank about the law of open government.

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