Carol Biliczky

KENT: Kent State officials were so intent on keeping their search for a new president secret that they destroyed search committee notes and documents.

Search committee member Tom Janson, a music professor, said KSU shredded his notes and documents after he interviewed prospects.

“The notes are gone,” said anthropology professor Owen Lovejoy, another search committee member. “Everything’s been taken care of. We shredded anything with personal data.”

When asked for comment about the reports of the shredding, KSU spokesman Eric Mansfield did not respond directly to the question.

He reiterated what he has in the past — that KSU has done nothing wrong.

“Kent State University neither has violated any public records laws nor has the university violated or failed to conform to any internal policy,” he said in an email. “We have turned over all records that are relevant.”

Meanwhile, the University of Akron and Youngstown State University have conducted open searches for new presidents, making it possible to know, for example, that former Ohio State University football coach and UA vice president Jim Tressel is a candidate at both institutions.

Secrecy ensured

Details slowly emerging underscore the extent to which the public, tax-supported Kent State went to ensure that it could conduct its search in private, away from the public eye, to keep names of candidates secret and to prevent disclosing how much it spent on individual candidates.

Not only did KSU require search committee members to sign confidentiality agreements, the university signed a contract addendum giving its private search firm, Storbeck Pimentel and Associates of Media, Pa., the power to decide what records are released to the public.

As a result, when the Beacon Journal and other media asked for public records showing how the $250,000 in taxpayer and student tuition money was spent, the university deferred to Storbeck Pimentel, which declined to deliver documentation that normally would be available.

For example, KSU provided the Beacon Journal with detailed receipts from Storbeck Pimentel employees for such things as airport food, but for the presidential candidates, the company submitted invoices for chauffeurs, hotels, airfare and meals with only generic descriptions, such as “candidate travel expenses.”

There was no description of what they may have purchased to eat while traveling, whether they made stopovers or billed for items that may not be permitted under state law — at least, according to what was provided to the Beacon Journal.

Non-specific answers

When asked how KSU vice president Charlene Reed, who coordinated the search for the university, confirmed that invoices were appropriate, Mansfield said “the approval process was appropriate for each expense.” He did not offer an explanation as to how that was done with such oblique invoices.

Ohio law requires documents regarding employee searches to be made public on request. That obligation extends to materials “in the sole possession of private search firms used in the hiring process,” according to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Sunshine Manual.

However, media or other members of the public must file lawsuits if public bodies refuse to comply with the law — a time-consuming and costly process.

When it came to the search itself, only the 17 members of the search committee — some from KSU, a few from the community — had access to Storbeck Pimentel’s secure database of applications.

Committee members reviewed “somewhere between 10 and 3,000” candidate resumes, Lovejoy said.

Richard Marsh, a KSU trustee and search committee chairman, took the search to the next step, deciding who would be interviewed in person at the Cleveland Clinic Intercontinental Hotel in November.

The university housed and fed about 30 search committee members and candidates over three nights at a cost of more than $20,000, at least according to invoices provided to the Beacon Journal. About $400 in liquor was charged to outgoing president Lester Lefton’s privately funded discretionary account.

Marsh gave search committee members four pages of pre-formatted questions and space to write their observations of hourlong interviews with each candidate, Janson recalled.

He and Lovejoy estimated they interviewed 12 or 18 candidates over the weekend. Janson said he doesn’t remember exactly how many because his notes were destroyed. Lovejoy refused to be more precise.

Janson said the committee broke into two groups, each of which interviewed one candidate. Then the groups switched rooms to lessen the risk of a candidate seeing another contender for the job.

Some variety

One candidate was a current KSU employee; another used to work there. No other candidates were from Ohio’s public universities, Janson said.

Warren, the eventual victor, was especially well prepared, he recalled. She knew and greeted the search committee members by name: “She was extremely friendly.”

According to the Daily Kent Stater student newspaper, Warren had to be persuaded by Storbeck Pimentel to take a hard look at the KSU job.

Another candidate pushed the hiring of his spouse as a package deal — an option Janson said he viewed as irrelevant to his role on the committee. And another had studied KSU’s finances — yet he based his assessments on 2008 documents, too out-of-date to be of value today.

Janson said candidates’ views of why they wanted to come to KSU ranged from, “Because my parents live in Cleveland” to “Ohio has the best benefits.”

One candidate, a minority from Los Angeles, pulled out fairly early because, Janson believed, he had another offer.

After the interviews, he said, search committee members ranked the candidates on paper, without discussing them. A priority list of the top candidates was produced for the board of trustees.

Then — nothing, as Janson remembered it. “I never heard another word.”

Trustees took over

The selection process shifted to the full KSU Board of Trustees, who interviewed two or three leading candidates at KSU’s College of Podiatric Medicine in Independence in December in executive session.

Instructions to a chauffeur on invoices indicate trustees shuttled unnamed candidates from Independence hotels to garages in the basement of the college and eventually to the airport. The media were waiting in the lobby for the trustees’ executive session to end and their regular meeting to begin.

Warren, the 65-year-old, No. 2 official at the tax-supported VCU in Richmond, was introduced at a special trustees’ meeting in January.

This month, she declined to talk about the process that will bring her to Kent State starting in July.

“I believe it would not be helpful for me to speak of a process that I did not design or implement,” she emailed.

Carol Biliczky can be reached at cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3729.