Some students, faculty and news media professionals are hoping the upcoming search for a new Kent State University president is a lot more open than in recent history.
KSU’s last two president searches were secretive, prompting critics to assail the school. Both times, names of finalists were not released. And each time, the search committee brought the successful candidate to campus as a done deal, rather than inviting three or four finalists to appear at forums, as many public schools do.
KSU President Beverly Warren, in the top job since 2014, revealed early last month that she planned to step down from her post in July.
“I do want the university to realize there are a lot of people with concerns [about the previous searches], and they are hoping the process conforms with the spirit and intent of our [state] open records law," said Dennis Hetzel, an open records advocate and the executive director of the Ohio News Media Association.
The chair of the KSU Faculty Senate, Pamela Grimm, said, “I’m trying to be forceful, and public and repetitive about the search being as transparent as possible.” She pressed for an open search in comments at the Faculty Senate meeting earlier this month.
"The last two searches generated so much animosity among faculty and students and so much negative press," she said. The searches "really violated the spirit of the [state] Sunshine Law" on open records.
Earlier this month, the Kent State student newspaper published an editorial headlined: "Kent State's next presidential search needs to be open."
In the editorial, Henry Palattella wrote, "Kent State is a place filled with a group of incredibly diverse, varied and courageous people, and they deserve a chance to develop an organic opinion of the finalists when they’re exactly that — finalists."
KSU trustees, who are responsible for naming the next president, have yet to detail how the upcoming search will be conducted.
University spokesman Eric Mansfield said trustees plan to “discuss aspects of the presidential search” at the Dec. 5 board meeting.
Late last month, several days after Warren revealed her plans to retire, the university issued a request for proposals from search firms “to identify and screen candidates” for her replacement. The proposals were due Nov. 2. Universities and colleges generally hire such firms to help find candidates.
Mansfield declined to say whether the board would hire a search firm at the Dec. 5 meeting.
The last time around, during the months-long search that led to Warren being named president in 2014, members of the 17-member search committee were tight-lipped about the process.
Working with a private search firm, they did not release the names of contenders other than the 20 or so who took the initiative to apply on their own.
Warren, who prior to coming to Kent State was vice chancellor at Virginia Commonwealth University, had not been seeking another job and was recruited to apply for the position, according to a 2014 Richmond Times-Dispatch story.
KSU followed the same procedure in 2006, when it hired Lester Lefton as president. He previously was senior vice president and provost at Tulane University in New Orleans.
University policy calls for faculty members — as well as students, alumni and administration personnel — to be part of the search committee.
Grimm, the Faculty Senate president, said that two faculty members, wanting transparency, already have declined to serve on the search committee. The faculty members were concerned they might have to sign confidentiality agreements, as was required for the last search.
Grimm said as chair of Faculty Senate she automatically serves on the committee. "I think it would create more confusion and I don't think it would be helpful" to decline to serve, she said.
She noted she "believes the board and faculty have the same interest — identifying the best possible president. They disagree on the best route to achieve that common goal."
Jane Murphy Timken, the then-chair of the KSU Board of Trustees, said in a 2014 letter to the Beacon Journal that the signing of confidentiality agreements "is considered a best practice in executive searches that allows for comfortable, open dialogue."
Hetzel, with the Ohio Newspaper Association, said "there was a whole pattern of behavior" in the last search that flouted the state's open records law.
In 2014, the Beacon Journal made repeated requests for an accounting of the university's search for a new president. However, the university signed an addendum to the search firm's contract that gave the firm control over all records — including those that the newspaper argued should be public, such as travel receipts. Some notes and documents were destroyed, two faculty members who served on the search committee said in 2014 Beacon Journal article.
Hetzel noted that public record advocates have a tool this time that they didn't during the earlier searches.
In 2016, the Ohio legislature approved a new process for resolving public records. As an alternative to filing a potentially costly lawsuit, those having trouble getting records they believe to be public can pay $25 to file a claim in the Ohio Court of Claims.
In 2014, Willis Walker, the university counsel, pointed to a 2010 lawsuit between the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Cincinnati Board of Education as evidence that applicants' materials can legally be withheld from the public.
The Cincinnati newspaper sought the applications of candidates for Cincinnati schools superintendent and lost. Because no copies of the materials had been provided to the board outside of the interview setting, they had never been "kept," the Ohio Supreme Court ruled.
But Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's Sunshine Law Manual cautions that the case "is limited to a narrow set of facts."
"There is no public records exception which generally protects resumes and application materials obtained by public offices in the hiring process," according to the manual. That obligation extends to materials "in the sole possession of private search firms used in the hiring process."
Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her @KatieByardABJ on Twitter or on Facebook.