The University of Louisville is trying hard to recover from what can arguably be considered its darkest hours. It has, and is still weathering challenges to its accreditation at several levels. It has been turned upside down by a string of scandals that may yet lead to criminal charges. All of this has been well-reported publicly resulting in a community consensus that a lack of transparency and accountability at the highest administrative and governance levels allowed corrupt and abusive practices to fester for years. Where there should have been openness, there was deliberate obfuscation. It is against this background that the UofL’s Board of Trustees seeks to appoint a new President of the University using a process that could not be more opaque. Faculty members, some administrators, and students who have the most skin in the game are openly critical. I am too.
The descriptors ‘open’ or ‘closed’ in reference to such a search are by themselves poorly defined. However, the recruitment process selected by the Trustees would deliver us as Deus ex machina, a new president to solve our problems, but one who would not be named until after they were appointed. Such a process meets my definition of ‘secret.’ More of the same is the last thing we need. The Board is increasingly being criticized for its retreat into opaqueness generally. Its meetings are carefully scripted and I have yet personally to hear a substantive discussion publicly. I must conclude, as I have in the past, that all major discussions or decisions occur behind closed doors. Perversely, even those Trustee representatives of faculty, staff, and students are prohibited from sharing information with their own respective constituencies – or for that matter even sharing their own opinions publically. The assumption of this posture by the Board beggars the concept of shared governance.
The Board has two prescriptive documents.
Clearly, one of the chief responsibilities of the Board is to fire and hire a president. This responsibility remains after Governor Bevin rewrote the laws controlling the University of Louisville which give him unprecedented personal control over its governance. Following the collapse of the Ramsey administration, the relatively large numbers of interim officers throughout the University (including an interim President) is one of the factors that led to the University being placed on probation by SACS, its accrediting organization. Therefore, the Board may be feeling some pressure to act swiftly. Swiftly need not – indeed must not displace deliberation and the shared governance that is part of university tradition and practice. [Would we have it any other way? Should any prospective candidate?] I would remind the Board that they are also bound to follow the protocols of the University Red Book which specifies that the Board shall consult with a faculty committee to be composed of one representative elected for that specific purpose from each of the  units listed in section 3.1.1 . There is no requirement that the search be conducted secretly – indeed the Board’s plan is incompatible with existing formal University policy and procedure.
In my opinion, the current Board of Trustees was appointed using the most intensively political intervention I have seen from my days as a lobbyist for higher education. Does the Board feel free – as the Governor who hand-picked them did – to ignore rules with which it does not agree? If so, we are in trouble. To prevent even the perception of political interference now and in the future, the Board must reverse its apparent retreat into the secrecy of the past that got us into so much trouble. To ignore Red Book policy in my opinion puts us at additional risk of continued probation. The Governor cannot rewrite the Red Book to retrospectively cover his actions – can he? [SACS-COC take notice!]
Buy-in is critical.
Whoever accepts the Presidency of the University of Louisville will face considerable challenges that will almost certainly require major changes from a deeply-embedded status quo. They will need support from state and local government; from existing and new University administrators; from our community; and most certainly from faculty, students, and staff. To empower any new President, it is essential that the product of the search delivered to them be perceived as legitimate. Whoever is appointed needs to be compared at least with all other finalists who would accept the position. This is particularly so for any internal candidate. The University community must feel comfortable that all potential candidates were considered fairly regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, political party, or any of the other innumerable things that divide us. It is difficult for me to conceive that the planned path forward will honor the University’s pledge to fairness and diversity, let alone its promises for a new transparency and accountability.
Closed (a.k.a. secret) searches.
It appears to me that the best argument, and perhaps the only legitimate argument for a closed search is that the “most desirable” candidates will otherwise be reluctant to allow their names to go forward. I find this argument hard to accept. The other side of that coin requires accepting a new president who has demonstrated from the outset that he or she is comfortable operating behind the backs of their current Board and institution. Isn’t a higher duty than personal gain operative here? My readings in the higher-education literature make it clear that there is no one right way: that closed searches can produce bad results; and open ones can yield winners.
It has been pointed out to me that a search firm using such a secret protocol shields itself from oversight and full accountability. Whose interests after all does it represent – the candidates, University officers, or the University itself? How are we insulated from possible conflict of interests among the parties to the transaction?
On the other hand, why deny a potential new president the opportunity to visit the campus openly; to ask questions of students, faculty and others; to be able to hear concerns offered from the ranks; to begin to generate buy-in from their potential future colleagues and constituents; to provide the opportunity for University constituents to ask questions that are important to them? Do we really want a President who hasn’t seen the place and kicked the tires? In fact, is the current Board (hard working as it may be) with limited previous knowledge of the University in the best position to tell any candidate what they need to know? I have heard the Board characterized as “absentee governors” from the perspective of faculty. The planned “listening tour” of the University community comes too late to convince the faculty that the process is sincere. I participated in many a University search and once was on a committee to evaluate a sitting President. I say let the faculty help you recruit the best candidate! It wants the best person too.
How can it possibly be a secret anyway?
The academic world is multiply interconnected by people who have worked or studied in other places. When a candidate is publicly identified, the opportunity exists for meaningful feedback regarding qualifications and past ability to work productively with University constituents. [I can think of a recent University official whose previous known conduct was predictive of their actions here, and not in a good way.] Unless a candidate does not visit Louisville at all, or comes in disguise, it seems impossible to me that total secrecy can be achieved in any event. I would suggest to faculty and students that they follow the lead of critics of a closed search in Austin to use their cell phones to photograph strangers being escorted around the University and to post them for identification. Why not let prospective new presidents know up-front that we don’t want any secret visitors!
What about potential internal candidates?
Having the opportunity to compare candidates and to express preferences is a core aspect of shared governance and which is built into University tradition and policy. This applies equally to internal and external candidates. There is at least one internal candidate who has expressed interest –Dr. Greg Postel, the current Interim President. Perhaps there will be others. I earnestly believe it is important to allow faculty and administrators of our university a fair opportunity to advance in-house. Bringing someone in from the outside is not better a priori. We have had some disasters here in that regard. I personally have not had an opportunity to work with Dr. Postel, but by all accounts, including my own necessarily limited observations, he is doing a fine job. He may be the exactly the right person for the permanent appointment. Some may believe that having been chosen by the Board of Trustees once already as Interim President that he has an inside and favored track. This is a predictably unavoidable possible perception. Dr. Postel is very familiar with the University but was also part of its previous senior administration. He deserves the opportunity to tell us what he would do differently. For better or worse, he has the unique opportunity to demonstrate how he will interact with the current and future Boards. But now more than ever, given the magnitude of task ahead, his candidacy needs to be legitimized and, indeed, he deserves to be empowered by comparison with all other candidates seeking to accept an appointment to be our next University President. He and any other candidate deserves no less.
Questions for prospective candidates.
Wouldn’t you like to hear responses to questions posed to candidates that will be denied to us? How would they have handled things that have been problematic or controversial here? How do they feel about the roles our Foundation and multiple other accessory corporations? Are they in full approval of our inclusive support for gay, lesbian, or transgender students and faculty? Do they believe that we have the proper balance of basic research, commercial research, liberal arts studies, and the many other facets of academic life? Does the candidate feel we have the proper balance between sports and academics? How do they feel about our use of adjunct faculty who do the bulk of our teaching? In fact, how do they feel about the concept of shared governance with faculty? What is most important to them? What ideas might they have even at their initial exposure to our University? What questions would you like to see asked-and-answered somewhere other than in a Cincinnati restaurant or on speaker phone with a Board committee? How can the rest of us help in this search?
The Board of Trustees of the University of Louisville is on the wrong path here. Autocracy is as inappropriate a management style for a Board as it is for a President. The Board should conduct an open and therefore an accountable search for our new President.
Peter Hasselbacher, MD
Emeritus Professor of Medicine
16 November 2017