The next chancellor of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities likely will be chosen today from among three finalists by the State System of Higher Education's board of governors, which has scheduled a special conference call meeting.
No matter which candidate prevails, the search to fill Pennsylvania's highest paid state government job is different from past searches in at least one significant -- and some say, troubling -- respect.
It was conducted under an order of secrecy so complete that several dozen system officials and others who took part in interviews with the finalists were required to sign nondisclosure agreements to protect the candidates' identities.
The State System traditionally makes public the finalists for presidential searches on its 14 university campuses. It never before clamped a start-to-finish confidentiality order on any chancellor search.
But system leaders this time decided the applicant pool for the $327,500-a-year job would be stronger if those seeking it did not have to fear their current employers would learn they are job hunting.
So board members added confidentiality language to their first-ever written policy governing chancellor searches. It was approved in January as the search began.
Among those voting for the measure was Ronald Tomalis, who as state education secretary served on the State System's board. Mr. Tomalis stepped down as secretary May 31 and reportedly is a finalist for the chancellor position, though officials citing the new confidentiality rules say they can not confirm if he or anyone else is a finalist.
Kenn Marshall, a State System spokesman, said there is nothing sinister about the secrecy.
"It's not that we're trying to hide anything from the public," he said. "The board just wanted to ensure the best possible candidates."
He could not cite an instance in which public disclosure weakened any of the three previous chancellor searches conducted since the State System's creation in 1982. But he said similar posts are filled confidentially in other states, noting California and New York as examples.
"We're not alone in doing this," he said.
But state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he believes searches ought to be public unless there is a significant policy benefit. He said he is unconvinced one exists in this case and believes the policy should change.
"If there was an event in the past where they didn't get the best candidates or have the opportunity to get the best candidates, I'm open to that, but you've got to show the facts," he said.
Otherwise, he said, "The public should be aware of it. They should at least know who the names are."
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said he understands that candidates want to job hunt discretely. But ultimately, he said, picking the leader of a 115,000-student system that employs 12,500 people is a major governmental decision that is better informed when at least the finalists face public scrutiny.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977.