Open presidential search committee to senate

A letter by UMFA president Janet Morrill

There was a rally in front of the U of M senate chambers on Feb. 6 to show support for the senate’s recommendation, in January, to make the search for our next president open to the public. That recommendation was recently rejected by the university’s board of governors.

President David Barnard’s term ends in 2020 and the choice of president to replace him will impact the lives of students, faculty and other employees at U of M.

The president, among other things, has a great deal of influence over university strategy and the allocation of resources.

Those decisions determine whether professors receive competitive salaries, how many students are in classes, whether smaller enrolment classes will be offered and whether a course is taught by a professor who has academic freedom and intellectual property protections or by underpaid casual academic staff who must worry if they will have classes to teach next term.

The board of governors oversees the business of the university — budgeting, personnel and other administrative functions — and is therefore responsible for hiring the new president.

It has chosen to implement a closed search process where all members of the search committee sign a “Charter of Expectations” that requires strict confidentiality.

In an open presidential search, the university community is informed of the names of the short-listed candidates, those candidates make public presentations describing their vision for the university and the community is allowed to submit comments to the search committee.

None of that happens in a closed search.

In a closed search, the search committee does not have input from the wider community on specific candidates. The charter for committee members prohibits “external discussion with anyone, at any time, about the candidates’ names or any other aspect of the search committee’s deliberations” and directs that they “are to refrain from unauthorized or informal reference-checking/due diligence.” In other words, search committee members cannot make enquiries or talk to people who have worked with any candidate because this would reveal the candidate’s identity.

This practice is in stark contrast to most searches at the university which are open: searches for professors, department chairs and deans include public presentations by each candidate. This means those selected through an open search can be assessed by everyone in the university community, whom they ultimately serve.

Executive search firms argue that without protecting applicants’ identities, the best candidates will not apply. However, a 2017 study has been unable to find any empirical support for that claim. Co-authors Judith Wilde and James Finkelstein even suggest that executive search firms push for closed searches because they can create a large stable of failed candidates that can be recycled in future searches.

Therein lies the problem: closed searches serve the candidates and the search firms at the expense of a university community that prides itself on free and open debate.

Is it reasonable to require an open search? Certainly it must be unpleasant for a candidate to have their rejection publicly known.

Yet open searches are common practice in many publicly accountable institutions. Our next president is likely to earn in excess of $500,000 a year of taxpayer — and tuition — funded dollars. It seems fair to impose some risk on candidates in return for the potential privilege of leading our university.

Following the rally on Feb. 6, faculty senators proposed a compromise position: as most senators are elected by either faculties or students, short-listed candidates for the presidency should have to present their vision for the university to a closed session of senate. Senators would then offer their thoughts on the candidates to the hiring committee, which will in the end recommend a final candidate to the board.

This is, at least, a larger number of members from a wider swathe of the U of M community.

This proposal was approved by senate. We hope the board of governors has the wisdom to agree.