Inside the (Secret) Process of Selecting a University President

A new Florida law keeps secret the names of applicants for president of a state university, and closed-door hiring processes for college presidents are now the norm nationwide. Here's what's behind the move away from transparency.

Published March 31, 2022

Edited by Alex Pasquariello
Inside the (Secret) Process of Selecting a University President
Higher Ed Policy Opinion & Analysis
Photo by John Rensten / The Image Bank / Getty Images

  • The public often gets little insight into how the most important position at a university is filled.
  • This wasn't always the case, as searches before the 2000s were transparent more often than not.
  • Faculty and students argue that closed searches leave their voices out of the selection process.

Until last month Florida had one of the most transparent university presidential search processes in the country. The Sunshine State's sunshine laws meant that every applicant for an open presidential role must make their name public when applying.

But when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill on March 15 exempting applicants for president of a state university from longstanding public information requirements, he aligned Florida with many other states shunning public presidential selections.

And in the case of the Sunshine State, the move away from transparency is one that has huge implications for students, faculty, administrators, and taxpayers as four of Florida's 12 public institutions of higher education are currently on the hunt for new leadership.

Advocates for closed searches, often executive search firms and university boards of trustees, say such processes allow for a deeper and wider candidate pool because highly qualified candidates may be hesitant to apply if their current employer would know they were interested in another position.

However, many faculty members and students argue that closed searches leave their voices out of the selection process. University presidents make decisions that will impact these groups, so they should be in on the hiring process, their argument goes. Likewise, open searches also allow for more thorough vetting of candidates by all stakeholders on campus.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, vehemently opposed Florida's new law keeping presidential candidates secret for most of the process.

"To say that the biggest single decision that goes on in the life of every college campus is going to be made without any public participation?" he told BestColleges. "I think there's such a disconnect with everything going on in the world."

Multiple Approaches to Presidential Searches

It would be easy to pin all presidential searches as either "open" or "closed," but the truth is there are shades of gray.

In some instances, a search is done entirely in the open, as used to be the case in Florida.

Take the search to replace former Florida State University (FSU) President John Thrasher after he retired in late 2020. Caitlyn Blake-Hedges is a former FSU graduate student who served on the school's search committee. The committee broadcasted virtually every step in the selection process to the public, Blake-Hedges told BestColleges. It also released the names of every applicant and always made sure there was time set aside for public comment.

Then, there's a sort of hybrid open-closed approach to choosing a president exemplified by the recent search for a new president at Whitworth University, a private school in Spokane, Washington.

Whitworth student Rachel Ayers served on the search committee tasked with replacing former President Beck Taylor, who announced he was transferring to another institution in early 2021. She told BestColleges that the committee included diverse voices such as student representatives, faculty, and administrators who all worked with an executive search firm to find a new president.

Where Whitworth's search process differed from FSU's is how much information available to the committee was shared with the wider university and public.

“It would be easy to pin all presidential searches as either "open" or "closed," but the truth is there are shades of gray.”

Candidate interviews and resume evaluations were conducted behind the scenes, Ayers said. Instead of letting the public in on every step of the process, the school held town hall discussions with different stakeholders to get a sense of their priorities.

"As a search committee, we sifted through what everyone was thinking to go off of what people had highlighted," she said. "It was more of a reserved search. We weren't talking publicly about it."

Eventually, the committee sent the board of trustees a list of finalists to choose from. The student body and faculty never saw any list of candidates, and committee members — Ayres included — signed nondisclosure agreements.

On the other end of the spectrum is the increasingly common closed search.

In some of these situations, the board of trustees abruptly announces a new president without a search committee, as was the case recently at Ohio University. In other cases, a search committee includes no faculty or students, only high-ranking university executives. Sometimes a university will release a finalist list of only one name, and that person is ultimately selected to be the next president, as was the case in the University of Colorado's appointment of President Mark Kennedy in 2019.

In states such as Colorado and Georgia, LoMonte said it's explicitly written in state law that executive searches can be done without including the public.

"It's all a competitive race to the bottom," he said.

The Pros and Cons of Open and Closed Searches

Are presidential searches better off open, hybrid, or closed?

The answer, unsurprisingly, depends on whom you ask.

Shawn Hartman, chief operating officer at executive search firm Academic Search, told BestColleges that closed searches are the best way to attract top-tier candidates for positions. The shift toward more secretive searches, he added, is more a symptom of the types of people colleges and universities now want to fill vacant president positions.

"Boards have really focused on trying to hire experienced leaders," Hartman said. "If you want to do that, you have to recruit them away from somewhere else."

People who recently served on search committees agreed. Ayres of Whitworth University said she doesn't think the university would have gotten as good of candidates as they did without a closed process.

Ultimately, the university chose to promote Interim President Scott McQuilkin. McQuilkin was not one of the finalists that the search committee suggested to the board of trustees.

That wasn't because of a lack of good candidates, however.

"You can offer people things," Ayres said, "but they may have their own plans in mind."

LoMonte of the Brechner Center said there is little proof that closed searches actually produce better candidates. He said the Brechner Center compared the appointees in a closed-search state (Georgia) to those of more open, neighboring states (Florida and Tennessee). Instead of seeing more out-of-state candidates from prestigious institutions as you would expect as a result of these closed searches, Georgia appointees were mostly insiders with connections to board of trustees members or the university chancellor.

He added that search firms are the ones who benefit the most from closed searches.

By keeping names secret, LoMonte claims, firms are able to shop around a similar cohort of candidates to a variety of institutions. That way if one university turns a candidate down, the firm can still suggest that name to another university without it feeling like "damaged goods."

Hartman rejected this theory, at least in terms of how Academic Search conducts its searches. He said it's true that a firm may suggest a candidate to multiple institutions over a period of time, but that doesn't mean the same candidates will be involved time after time.

"We don't know who to go after until we know what [a school or search committee is] looking for," Hartman said.

Timothy Gibson is a professor at George Mason University who has campaigned for open searches. He argues that the biggest benefit of open searches for faculty and students is the ability to vet candidates thoroughly.

"The public and faculty can play a very vital role in vetting finalists," he told BestColleges. "The feedback from faculty — who have contacts from people who worked for other intuitions — is incredibly valuable for choosing the right candidate."

“The feedback from faculty — who have contacts from people who worked for other intuitions — is incredibly valuable for choosing the right candidate.”

He added that the idea that closed searches are the only way to get good applicants doesn't hold water, as the argument ignores decades of presidential appointments that were done transparently before this widespread shift to more closed searches.

Back in Tallahassee, Blake-Hedges said there was immense value in the FSU's open search for its president.

"The fact that the public could come talk to the committee I think is super important," Blake-Hedges said. "People felt differently about certain candidates than we might have assumed… To know what other people were thinking about certain candidates helped solidify some opinions."

It certainly helped inform her own perspective on candidates, she added. For example, she initially overlooked one candidate, but after many people spoke highly about them, she dug deeper to understand why that person resonated with others.

Without an open search, a school or search committee wouldn't have heard those perspectives. The school ultimately may have gone in a different direction than what the student body and faculty wanted, she said.

"[A closed search] takes away from the students' voice; it would otherwise be overlooked."

Closed Search, Shorter Term?

Advocates for open searches say the rise in closed searches corresponds with a rise in abrupt presidential resignations. LoMonte points to the situation at Oregon State University as an example of how the two are correlated.

F. King Alexander served as the president at Louisiana State University (LSU) but left in December 2019 to lead Oregon State University as president. However, he resigned just four months later after reporting by USA Today showed LSU's athletics department mishandled sexual misconduct allegations under his watch.

LoMonte said he believes his mishandling of the LSU situation would have surfaced in an open search where the public and faculty would have been able to vet him as a candidate. But because this information didn't come to light until after he assumed the role, the university paid the price — in fact, it paid Alexander $670,00 when he resigned.

Hartman of Academic Search said shorter tenures aren't a symptom of closed searches. Instead, it's related to the corporatization of the president's role without the onboarding and coaching that many executives in the corporate world receive.

"The corporate world adopted executive coaching decades ago," he said. "Somehow we expect [university] presidents to run multi-million dollar enterprises without that same level of support."

Expect Opacity Moving Forward

Closed-door hiring processes for college presidents are now the norm, not the exception.

At Mason, Gibson had to lobby for months just to get more faculty involvement in the school's 2019 search for a new leader. Even then, the concession he got from the board of trustees was to allow representatives from the faculty senate to ask questions of the finalist candidates through a Zoom meeting. The senators who asked questions had to sign an NDA to participate.

"We were happy that our campaign led to the significant opening up of the process, but we did feel that it stopped short of what the faculty handbook called for and what we really wanted," Gibson said.

Judith Wilde, a professor at George Mason University, has conducted extensive research into university president searches. She told BestColleges the trend toward using more executive search firms — and more secretive searches — began between 1995 and 2005 and has grown ever since.

In 1975, just 2% of searches used firms, she said. By 2015, 92% used firms.

“In 1975, just 2% of university presidential searches used executive search firms. By 2015, 92% used firms.”

Nobody really knows why institutions moved to executive search firms, Wilde said, but she has a hypothesis based on her research.

As institutions turned more and more to executive search firms, more executives from corporate America joined the ranks on boards of trustees, she said.

Executive search firms are commonplace in the corporate world. Therefore, it's a natural extension for these trustees to suggest firms when a president resigns or retires.

"They don't know what [a search] involves, so a search firm comes riding in like a knight in shining armor on a white horse and tells [the board] all the things they can do for them. It's an attractive option," Wilde said.

All these factors make it feel like the deck is stacked against those still advocating for transparency.

Even LoMonte, ever the optimist, concedes that if institutions can look past the Oregon State case and still not see the value in transparency, things aren't looking up.

"I'm always an optimist about things," he said, "but this is one thing where all of the powerful forces are moving so rapidly in the order of secrecy."