The board of trustees at Kent State University soon will launch in full its search for a new president. Beverly Warren announced in October her intention to step down from the position in July. No doubt, the board would like its choice to turn out as well. Warren has been a most effective leader by nearly all accounts.
One thing the trustees have an obligation to add in this process is transparency, or a commitment to comply with the letter and spirit of the Ohio Public Records Act. That was missing nearly five years ago when Warren was selected. The search was conducted under a cover of secrecy that harmed the university’s reputation, in part, because the withholding of information, even shredding documents, departed from the values of higher education that honor informed debate.
When this newspaper requested documents, the university balked, all but hiding behind its arrangement with the search firm. The school did provide many documents. It also withheld many, leaving the firm to decide which documents would be made public.
That isn’t how the law works, and the Kent board would do well to pledge upfront to openness in its new presidential search.
The state open records law makes clear that resumes and other application materials obtained by public offices in the hiring process are part of the public domain. The state attorney general advises that documents held by a search firm during the process are public. And yet Kent, and other schools in Ohio, have held such information close, refusing to reveal finalists, presenting the final choice as a done deal.
As Frank LoMonte of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida argued on this page last week, openness can be helpful. It enhances the vetting process, providing, say, an avenue for new and relevant information to surface. More than anything, the public deserves to know how institutions are conducting matters in its name, and on its dollar.
That isn’t say there’s no room for confidentiality. Rather, Kent and others have gone far beyond where such protection is warranted, for instance, resisting disclosure of basic spending in the search. Neither is secrecy essential to attracting a strong pool of candidates. Those in higher education on an upward career trajectory often are well known. It hardly surprises that a successful provost would seek a presidency. Beverly Warren told her boss that Kent State was recruiting her.
Again, as LoMonte noted, the benefits of transparency shouldn’t be lost due to the potential for hard feelings about the commonplace, someone moving up the leadership ladder.
Kent State deserves credit for its inclusive search committee, including a presence for the Kent community. The University of Akron, facing its own presidential search, would do well to take the cue. At the same time, Kent State should follow the UA path in going public with the finalists and sharing details of the process.
This isn’t just about making a good selection, though that is key, obviously. Ohioans, through their representatives, made their own choice — to insist in the law that public institutions conduct their business in the open. That isn’t something to skirt past or treat lightly. Transparency belongs at the front in Kent State selecting its next president.