Should the hunt for a university chancellor be secret?

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When the University of Pittsburgh sought its next chancellor, it assembled a search that had an initial stage as visible and embracing as the forums that were held coast to coast to solicit opinions of those even thousands of miles away.

Then, as planned, after search committee members were announced and two pages of ideal candidate attributes were released, the quest by Pitt to fill what is arguably this region's most influential job went dark. As Pitt trustees chairman Stephen Tritch put it to students, alumni and employees in a note in early September, the university was moving into a period "when the need for confidentiality for the candidates is essential."

The process that led to Saturday's selection of Patrick D. Gallagher as Pitt's 18th chancellor fits with a trend nationally among public universities that is being hotly debated and even litigated in some states.

Defenders of closed searches say they are the only way to ensure the best will apply, given the risks to applicants of being discovered looking for a job. Critics counter that secrecy makes it difficult, if not impossible, to know how carefully a search was conducted and whether diversity was seriously considered. They say a candidate's desire for privacy should not trump the public's right to know how taxpayer-supported institutions make important decisions.

The shift away from open searches on public campuses took hold in the early 1990s, after some campus leaders suspected of job-hunting were fired, saw donors pull back gifts or faced legislators suddenly reluctant to commit support, said Jan Greenwood, partner and co-owner of Greenwood/Asher and Associates Inc., a Florida firm involved in educational and nonprofit executive searches.

While it's still possible to secure a qualified leader in an open search, Ms. Greenwood said, "the history suggests they will not get the variety of people who have been successful presidents."

That is important, she noted, because the best predictor of performance is whether a candidate working at a similarly complex institution already has achieved success. The least reliable predictor, she added, is the job interview.

With so many ways for college presidents to lose support of important constituencies, many choose their risks carefully these days.

An open search "is not a risk that many of them are willing to add to all the other risks," said Molly Corbett Broad, former president of the University of North Carolina who is now president of the American Council on Education, a higher education group in Washington, D.C.

Others don't buy those arguments, and the debate in some states has spilled over into legislatures and courts.

Louisiana State University was sued by news outlets recently for withholding the names of candidates for president-chancellor of the university except for F. King Alexander, the school's ultimate choice. A ruling in favor of the news outlets faces an appeal.

"The public wants to understand, one, are we attracting the highest quality candidates for this job and if not, why not?" said Lori Mince, attorney for the plaintiffs. "And, two, are they actually considering recruiting minorities, women, etc.?"

With 43,000 students and a $3.3 billion budget, LSU is arguably the most formidable agency in that state and pays its leader a $600,000 salary, Ms. Mince said.

"That's more than the governor, the lieutenant governor and the secretary of state combined," she said. "It's an extremely important and powerful position, so the idea that a committee of 12 people gets to select that job in total secrecy, I think is just preposterous."

In Pennsylvania, leaders of the 14 state-owned universities broke with past chancellor searches last summer by keeping candidates confidential until Frank Brogan was selected as State System chancellor. Board members and others were allowed to meet the finalists in advance but had to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Many believe Penn State University was poised to present a lone, unidentified candidate to its board in the fall before effectively reopening its search. Community College of Allegheny County scrapped its usual open campus interviews with finalists before hiring a new president in the fall.

Mr. Gallagher, 50, U.S. undersecretary of commerce and director of the National Institute for Standards and Technology, said he personally might not have pursued an open search at Pitt. "I can't say what my decision would have been, but it certainly would have been problematic for me and, honestly, it would have been a real barrier," he said.

At NIST, he has a reputation for transparency, but, he said, if he has to conduct other high-profile personnel searches at Pitt, he likely will keep them secret, too. "I'm not opposed to openness and transparency. As a public employee I'm all for it, but what tends to happen in a long process ... is that it's a little bit drawn out and you put people in a difficult situation if they have to be publicly declared for that whole period of time. It raises questions for the positions they're currently in," he said.

The search for a successor to Mark Nordenberg, who steps down Aug. 1, is not the first time Pitt sought a new leader in secret.

The last one in 1996 included clandestine off-site interviews, one at an undisclosed airport motel in Atlanta that was chosen so a sitting president could fly in undetected from an undisclosed city.

As circumspect as Pitt was in 1996, it at least revealed it had 158 candidates, including eight unnamed campus presidents and a provost. It confirmed the names of three finalists six days before trustees voted after candidate identities began leaking out. This time, Pitt would say only that "hundreds" had applied. It approached Saturday's vote having publicly identified none of four finalists.

This week, Pitt declined requests to interview Eva Tansky Blum, chairwoman of the search committee, or other members. "We would rather talk about the result than the process," Pitt spokesman Ken Service said.

In a closed search -- even one with its own website that sought input from every constituency -- it's impossible for the public to verify how the decision turned.

But Pitt faculty interviewed this week said their confidence was bolstered for reasons such as the care with which Mr. Tritch and others listened to faculty and included them on the 26-member search panel.

"Chairman Tritch not only asked for five elected representatives of the faculty, but he patiently waited until we went through our own deliberative process to nominate and elect them," said Michael Spring, Pitt's Faculty Assembly president.

Once underway, the search committee identified Mr. Gallagher as a top contender early on and began an extensive reference check.

Vint Cerf, a Google executive with an unusual title on his business card -- vice president and chief Internet evangelist -- was one reference they approached for at least two telephone interviews.

"They asked about his style, about his effectiveness in the NIST context and whether he would be able to replicate that in the university context," said Mr. Cerf, who served for six years on the Visiting Committee for Advanced Technology, an advisory panel to NIST. "I was conflicted because now there's this gigantic void looming" at NIST.

Mr. Cerf said he told the search committee that Mr. Gallagher "has done a magnificent job of managing the organization, a big sprawling empire with two major locations" in Gaithersburg, Md., and Boulder, Colo.

Even when the search committee members called for references, they were tight-lipped about whether Mr. Gallagher was a finalist.

Professor emeritus John Baker, former Faculty Assembly president, said he would have preferred a more open search but believes Pitt trustees are generally thorough. That's enough, he said, to give the benefit of the doubt that a process walled off from the public made the right pick. "Time will tell," he said.

Tracie Mauriello contributed. Bill Schackner:, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.

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