By Emily Tate, Managing Editor and Reis Thebault, Editor-in-Chief
Yesterday, in all likelihood, marked the end of a six-month, nationwide search for Miami’s next president — a search conducted in secret and mired in controversy.
Gregory Crawford, provost at the University of Notre Dame, is the “finalist” for the job, but it’s not the person that has the university up in arms, it’s the process.
“One ‘finalist?’” said Cathy Wagner, exasperated. “I wish that was a joke, because it’s not very funny. Secret nominations … really? An appointed, anointed leader?”
Wagner is the vice president of Miami’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a faculty advocacy organization, and is a professor of English.
She said the process was more reminiscent of a search for the CEO of a major corporation, not the president of a university.
“And we’re not a corporation. We’re a public institution,” she said.
Though Crawford will be visiting the Oxford and regional campuses next week to meet with students, faculty and others in the community, Frank LoMonte, president of the Student Press Law Center, says that the visit is little more than a formality.
“Clearly, when you have a finalist of one, they’re telling you a decision has been made,” LoMonte said. “It’s a done deal.”
There were three groups behind that decision: Miami’s Board of Trustees, the Presidential Search Committee and executive search firm Isaacson, Miller.
The search committee was comprised of nine individuals, including a student, three faculty, a senior administrator, an alumnus, a representative from the university foundation board and two trustees. Committee members were required to sign a nondisclosure agreement at the outset.
And last summer, the board hired Isaacson, Miller to assist with the presidential search. To date, Miami has paid the firm over $177,000 for its services, according to invoices obtained through public records requests.
Miami’s decision to use a search firm and search committee made it more difficult for other interest groups — like faculty, students, staff and alumni — to be directly involved in the search or to provide input in any significant way.
The exclusion of the public from the process — from the beginning of the search to yesterday’s announcement of the finalist — has led several people, in and out of the university, to label it undemocratic.
Sue Ramlo, a Miami alumna and member of the University of Akron’s AAUP chapter, said Miami’s search violated the concept of shared governance, a founding tenet of academia.
“Faculty, with their expertise and experiences, help inform decisions made by the president, provost and Board of Trustees,” she said. “Because faculty, not Board of Trustees members or administrators, are typically the ones interacting with students, their perspectives are also key to the success of the institution.”
But Miami University, taking cues from the Board of Trustees, is making that level of involvement and transparency difficult. Through public records requests covered under the Ohio Open Records Act, The Miami Student has tried to make available the names of all those considered for the position, but with little success.
In December, this newspaper requested the resumes, cover letters and curricula vitae of anyone applying to the position of president. That request yielded the names of 23 candidates, who were likely never seriously considered for the position, sources say. This is evident, too, because the name of the finalist, Gregory Crawford, was not among those released to The Student.
Then, in January, this newspaper received a tip that the search committee was conducting interviews with finalists. After requesting the names of those being seen in airport interviews that month, the university said it did not have any public records responsive to that request.
Days later, The Student renewed that request, adding a second request for documents used by or made accessible to the search committee. That request yielded two documents: a list of interview questions and equal opportunity guidelines.
On Jan. 31, The Student made another request, this time for the names of the individuals “nominated” for the position. The university has said that Isaacson, Miller mailed the documents, but those have yet to arrive.
LoMonte, who is familiar with Miami’s search and has reviewed some of The Student’s requests, said the university is being overly technical in order to conceal the candidates’ names.
“You’re supposed to produce the records that are responsive to the request. I don’t think your request was ambiguous. It was clear what you wanted,” LoMonte said. “It does seem like they played word games in an attempt to conceal the list of true candidates.”
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said that the search was questionable from the beginning, when the Board of Trustees announced it would be private.
“I can certainly say it violates the spirit of the law to be picking the new president of a public university in near total secrecy,” he said.
Regardless of the legality of the process, Karen Dawisha, president of Miami’s AAUP chapter, said this method of seeking out and selecting the next president does not help to garner support for him among faculty, students and staff.
“I would not personally like to be chosen in this way. I don’t think that [this secret search] aids in the legitimacy of any selection, however good that selection is,” Dawisha said. “To have the person chosen by a small group of people and vetted really, solely by a search firm, I don’t think it’s the best way for anyone to start a new job.”
LoMonte agreed, saying that, despite Crawford’s credentials, the nature of this search may mean he has to work harder to earn the respect of his colleagues.
“It’s not good for the president, either, to come into office under a cloud of suspicion or mistrust,” he said. “People should feel confident that the best person won. There’s no way to know that.”
And, Hetzel said, that lack of transparency does not bode well for the university.
“I think we’ve learned again and again and again that the more secrecy you have in government or public bodies, the more opportunity there is for problems,” he said. “So it’s certainly not a good symbol for a well-respected public university to be looking for ways to do something in secret that could have been done more publicly.”
Additional reporting by Megan Zahneis.