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Ohio State presidential candidates to be kept ‘confidential’

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As Ohio State looks to take the next step on the path to finding a new president, it appears the remainder of the process will not be as transparent as some officials originally suggested.

OSU assistant vice president of media and public relations Gayle Saunders said Sunday the university does not intend to make the candidates for the presidency public.

“There has been discussion that as candidates are narrowed, because these may be candidates who are currently in positions (at other universities), that information will be private,” Saunders said.

A Sunday university statement, emailed to The Lantern by Saunders, reaffirmed that.

“As the work of the Presidential Search Committee continues, it is important to establish a process that allows candidates to maintain some privacy, and it is with that consideration that the names of final candidates will remain confidential,” the statement read.

Other details surrounding the process are not as clear cut, however. Various Presidential Search Committee officials have sent mixed messages about their desires for the search to be either transparent or secretive, and while an executive search firm was selected, university officials have said no contract exists yet. The same firm was hired by Louisiana State University, which was sued earlier this year for concealing its presidential finalists from the public.

OSU has employed a private search firm, Dallas-based R. William Funk & Associates, to assist in the selection process. The contract between OSU and R. William Funk & Associates, however, has not been finalized, Saunders said Sunday.

When asked if there was a written agreement of any kind between the university and the firm, Saunders reiterated the contract is being finalized. The firm is the same one that was employed by an LSU entity during its presidential search, which made similar moves in keeping presidential candidate information private earlier this year.

LSU was sued twice for not releasing the names of finalists in its presidential search process during the spring. Two newspapers teamed up in one case, while a former editor of the LSU student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, opted to keep her suit separate.

The Daily Reveille senior reporter Andrea Gallo, who independently sued LSU while she was editor-in-chief last year, said the university had used private donor money to hire R. William Funk & Associates — a private firm — so there were no public records available.

“(LSU’s) responses were that information was not public record because it was paid for by private money and it went through a private search firm,” Gallo said.

LSU spokesman Ernie Ballard said in an email Friday that representatives from LSU are not able to comment on the current lawsuit.

Out of about 35 semi-finalists for the presidency at LSU, only one was named, F. King Alexander. Alexander assumed the school’s presidency July 1.

Gallo lost her suit in May. The judge in the case filed by The Times-Picayune and The Advocate ordered LSU to turn over the records in April, but the university has still not done so.

Gallo said the LSU Board of Supervisors said in court the search was conducted the way it was because it didn’t want to jeopardize any of the candidates’ current jobs.

“The Board of Supervisors claimed that was the best way to attract candidates,” Gallo said, “(but legally) applicants for public positions within state had to be open for public scrutiny and criticism.”

Koran Addo, a reporter for Baton Rouge, La., newspaper The Advocate, said there is a certain legitimacy to LSU’s desire to keep the finalists private.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that (putting candidates’ current jobs at risk) is a very real concern but the law is the law,” Addo said. “The law is very clear that those are public records.”

Officers were ordered by the court in the newspapers’ case to seize the records from the Board of Supervisors, but upon arriving to search for the candidates’ applications, they found nothing. Gallo said LSU’s lawyer then attempted to make a deal with the court.

“Throughout the whole lawsuit, LSU kept claiming that they did not actually have the records … the only place that these records existed was at the search firm in Texas,” Gallo said. “A couple of hours later, LSU’s lawyer… tried to strike this compromise where he was like, ‘We’ll give the records to the court if the court gives us permission to appeal.’”

Addo said the Board was using the Internet to look at the applicants instead of keeping hard copies of resumes.

“They had set up a secure website where the Board members could log on and review candidates so that way they didn’t have (print copies),” Addo said. “Any notes they took they were supposed to destroy.”

Louisiana’s public records law states “each applicant for public position of authority” be made “available for public inspection.” The Ohio Public Records Act, meanwhile, says resumes and application materials obtained by public offices in the hiring process are to be made public, and “a public office’s obligation to turn over application materials and resumes extends to records in the sole possession of private search firms used in the hiring process.” The law also says, however, “application materials may not be public records if they are not ‘kept by’ the office at the time of the request.”

Lori Mince, the lawyer representing The Advocate and The Times-Picayune, said a university employing a search firm is not automatically a sign of trouble.

“The use of a search firm to assist in identifying, contacting, vetting possible candidates for the job … is common and is not in and of itself an indication that the search is not going to be open,” Mince said. “I don’t think that they (LSU Board members) used a search firm is an indication that the university is trying to pull a fast one.”

Mince said whether or not keeping a search private helps the search attract better candidates is open to discussion.

“In a way, the subject of whether private searches result in a better candidate pool, that is an issue that is hotly debated,” Mince said. “The media is generally a proponent of transparency … but here, that’s not the debate … The legislature’s already had that debate and the legislature has already decided (it needs to be public).”

The court began fining LSU’s Board $500 per day beginning April 30 for not handing over the records, excluding May 23 through June 6 because the school had a stay on the order. The fines are now at “about a $60,000 level,” Gallo said. She added Board members “haven’t given a plan of action for how they’re going to pay” the fines.

In terms of avoiding a situation similar to LSU’s, Saunders said OSU is committed to answering public records requests “accordingly and within the letter of the law.”

OSU law professor Deborah Jones Merritt, chair of the advisory subcommittee of the Presidential Search Committee, made statements in the past about her desire to keep the process open to the public.

“In the great spirit of faculty here, I am committed to being open, transparent and inclusive in our search,” Merritt said at a July 19 committee meeting.

Merritt later made statements, though, about the search being kept private.

At the Undergraduate Student Government General Assembly meeting Aug. 28, Merritt said the committee will do most of its work behind closed doors and will maintain high secrecy about potential candidates, joking that candidates would be “parachuted in at night” to prevent leaks of names.

OSU Presidential Search Committee Chairman Jeffrey Wadsworth said at the Symposium on the University Presidency Aug. 30 the committee will launch a more concrete examination of candidates in mid-September.

The university statement Sunday reaffirmed the ideal qualities of the next OSU president “will be finalized over the next two weeks.”

Four public open forums soliciting suggestions from students, faculty and staff as to what qualities would be desirable in the next OSU president have been held at the Columbus campus, while seven have been held or are set to be held at branch campuses and other locations. The last two broad community forums are scheduled to take place at the OSU-Marion and OSU-Lima campuses Monday.

There have also been 19 other open forums held for specific target groups such as the Undergraduate Student Government Senate, the Council of Graduate Students and the Faculty Council, and a website established for the search has gathered “nearly 700 comments,” the university statement said.

An R. William Funk & Associates representative referred The Lantern to Blake Thompson, OSU vice president for Economic and Workforce Development and special assistant to interim OSU President Joseph Alutto, for comment. Thompson’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Symposium on the University Presidency, a discussion about what qualities a president should have and what a president should expect in his or her term, was held Aug. 30, hosted by Harvard Graduate School of Education professor emeritus Richard Chait. Tufts University President Emeritus Lawrence Bacow, Tulane University President Scott Cowen, Washington State University President Elson Floyd, University of North Carolina system President Thomas Ross and University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan were the scheduled panelists, but Cowen was unable to make it because he was “stuck in the airport,” Chait said Aug. 30.

The cost of the symposium was unavailable Sunday, Saunders said.

Meanwhile, it’s been more than three months since OSU President Emeritus E. Gordon Gee announced his retirement June 4. Gee retired July 1, the same day Alutto assumed the position.

The announcement of Gee’s retirement came days after controversial remarks Gee made at a Dec. 5 OSU Athletic Conference became public. Comments about Notre Dame and the Southeastern Conference in particular, among other remarks, brought national attention.

Wadsworth said July 19 the process is expected to take about 300 days based on how long searches take at other universities that are considering outside candidates.

9 comments

  1. Has to be done. We might not get the best candidate otherwise if they are putting their current job on the line. This is commonplace in the business world. I do agree that it should be on the public record…but it’s gotta be confidential up until a certain date.

  2. This article was all over the place. I suggest stop commenting on every little detail and focus on one thing at a time aka Ohio State.

  3. I think this was a really well written article. It was smart to use LSU as an example of what could happen to OSU if the search isn’t handled correctly. Thank you!

  4. I’m not sure what is so difficult to understand… The best candidates have good jobs already, and they won’t participate if they risk losing their current position. Only the worst candidates, who have reason not to care about their current positions, will participate publicly. It’s SO simple.

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