On today’s Commentary page, readers will find a letter to the editor from Jane Murphy Timken, the chair of the board of trustees at Kent State University. She defends the process the trustees used in selecting Beverly Warren to serve as the next university president. She does so in response to criticism from this editorial page concerning the university falling short of the disclosure required under the state’s public records law.
One leading purpose of the letters column involves publishing views at odds with those expressed by the editorial board. Ordinarily, we do not respond so immediately and directly. Yet Timken makes assertions most deserving of a quick response. So we have chosen to run this accompanying editorial.
Timken contends that “stories” in this newspaper have misled the public about the “how and why” of the decision-making in selecting a new president. She argues that “no laws have been broken and no public records have been shredded.” She says “all expenses have had appropriate administrative review, were processed through normal procedures and have been disclosed to the public.”
Take that last point: All expenses have not been disclosed to the public. The university has made much about the hundreds of documents it has shared. Yet details remain undisclosed. The citing by Timken of “appropriate administrative review” echoes an earlier claim that all “relevant” documents have been provided.
What good is public accountability if public offices get to decide which documents are worthy of disclosure? The university’s contract with a search firm allows for the firm to withhold documents it deems confidential or proprietary. Yet state law is clear: Application materials obtained by public offices in the hiring process are part of the public domain. The state attorney general advises that such documents held by a search firm, contract or not, must be made public.
Timken insists that no public records have been shredded. What this newspaper reported in April is that search committee members said documents used in the process were destroyed.
Timken notes that other Ohio universities have searched for a new president in similar ways. That doesn’t justify the methods. Neither does reaching a sound choice, or having an inclusive search committee. Kent State is a public university. It operates with public money. State law reflects the idea of holding such institutions accountable, not in part but in whole. The public deserves to know fully the how and why of the decision-making. And in this instance, that just isn’t the case.
Know, too, that if a public institution fails to meet resistance when it conducts business in this way, it will likely do so again, the stakes higher perhaps, all to the detriment of the public interest.