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Opinion: Rich white businessmen aren't best judges of college presidents

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte is a professor of media law and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, a think-tank advocating for government transparency.

In this smart piece, he writes about something that occurs frequently in Georgia, high-level government hires decided behind closed doors even though taxpayers pay the salaries. The results of these secretive dealings are often ill-fitting hires, says LoMonte, citing the Sam Olens saga at Kennesaw State University as an example.

LoMonte has Georgia ties. He practiced law with Sutherland Asbill and Brennan LLP in Atlanta and clerked for federal judges on the Northern District of Georgia and the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Prior to his legal career, he was an investigative journalist and political columnist. He was the capitol correspondent for the Florida Times Union, Washington correspondent for Morris News Service and the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris. He was the Otis Brumby Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at the Georgia Law School in spring-summer 2014 and has been a lecturer since 2015 in the University of Georgia Washington Program, teaching a course for undergraduates on “Law of Social Media.”

By Frank D. LoMonte

It’s not often that life hands you a do-over, but the departure of Kennesaw State University’s ill-fitting president, Sam Olens, gives the state a chance to right a terrible injustice done to everyone in the KSU community when the presidency was hijacked in a dubiously legal secret selection process.

Olens, who gave notice Thursday that he’s leaving Georgia’s third-largest public university after just 14 months on the job, was the only candidate considered by the state Board of Regents, despite having no higher-education experience. That he was the wrong person for the job should have become obvious, if the Regents had gone through the rigorous search process that a $430,000-a-year executive position deserves.

They didn’t. And they’re not alone. State after state has joined a shortsighted “race to the bottom” in competing to see who can be the most secretive in filling some of state government’s most powerful jobs.

Open-government laws that entitle the public to have meaningful input into the hiring of government executives are under attack across the country. In recent years, Nebraska and Wisconsin have rolled back their freedom-of-information laws to keep the public from finding out who’s being considered for college presidencies until the choice is done.

Even in Arizona, where the state Supreme Court has said unequivocally the public is entitled to the names of presidential candidates, the state just finished selecting the president of the University of Arizona in defiant secrecy, banking (successfully) on being able to finish the illicit hire before anyone could sue to stop it.

Georgia law entitles the public to at least some minimal level of oversight by requiring the Board of Regents to release the names of “as many as three” finalists before hiring a president. In a cynical manipulation of the law, the Regents have decided that “as many as three” means “one,” and in nearly every recent search, they’ve announced a “finalist list of one.” That’s cute -- and contemptuous, both of the law and of the value of public input.

The reason for this secrecy stampede is the dominance of executive search firms, which reap six-figure windfalls for placing candidates from their stockpile of resumés. The less public scrutiny, the better these headhunting firms like it. When only the name of the winner is announced, no one knows which candidates were turned down -- which leaves the headhunters free to peddle the rejects to other universities.

Unfortunately, it’s now coming to light, thanks to a study by researchers at George Mason University, that executive-search firms rarely perform even basic background-checking on the presidents they place, not even calling the current employer to make sure that the candidate isn’t leaving under a cloud of scandal. You’d put more diligence into hiring a dog-sitter than colleges put into hiring presidents.

The lack of public oversight has led to disastrously bad mismatches and near-misses. In 2013, Penn State University came within hours of announcing New York medical-school administrator David Smith as its new president. Only a fortuitous leak of Smith’s name averted a catastrophe, when the university learned that Smith was under investigation by his current employer for financial misconduct.

At the University of Missouri, a secret search led to the hiring of catastrophically failed president Tim Wolfe, plucked out of the software industry with no education-management expertise. Wolfe’s inability to relate to students was exposed when he proved incapable of responding to campus racial tensions that not only destroyed his presidency but plunged the university into a financial and enrollment free-fall from which it still struggles.

Rigorous background-checking is more vital than ever, now that it has become well-known that universities secretly “pass the trash” of harassers from one institution to another by letting wrongdoers quietly resign. The only effective check is to make the names of candidates public while there’s time for whistleblowers to come forward.

Headhunting firms insist that “superstar” sitting presidents will not compete for other presidencies without secrecy, so as not to jeopardize their standing back home. But Georgia has almost never taken advantage of secret searches to lure superstar presidents from other states. Rather, secret searches invariably benefit hometown candidates with inside connections like Olens.

At the University of Georgia, documents pried loose from the Board of Regents by a college journalist showed that top Regents administrators actively discouraged a well-credentialed female candidate -- Cathy Cox, now the dean of the Mercer University law school -- from competing in the most recent presidential search. That cleared the path to elevate an insider candidate, Jere Morehead, to be UGA’s 22nd consecutive white male president. There is no indication any other candidate was even considered.

Fifteen of Georgia’s 19 Regents are white men, almost all are wealthy business executives, and only one has a background as an educator. Try as they might, the Regents can’t possibly represent the needs and concerns of diverse campus stakeholders. That’s why the community needs to be part of the hiring decision.

The president of a public university is equivalent to the major of a mid-sized city, with power over police, housing, healthcare, food services and personnel. Nobody would want to live in a city where the mayor was elected by 19 rich business executives in a locked room. Students, faculty and alumni deserve a chance to publicly question multiple serious candidates face-to-face, to avert the next Tim Wolfe or Sam Olens mismatch.

Public accountability doesn’t discourage good candidates from applying. It discourages applications from arrogant candidates who are opposed to open government or whose backgrounds are tainted by scandal. What will discourage good applicants is cultivating a reputation as a state where top university jobs are wired for politically connected cronies.

Georgia has tried secrecy, and it plainly doesn’t produce superstar presidents. It’s time to give honesty a chance.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.