Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Presidential selection process can be done openly

I'm withholding judgment on Margaret Spellings, named last week to be the new president of the University of North Carolina system. After all, Spellings, a former U.S. secretary of education, will not take office until next March.

But while I withhold judgment on Spellings, who has been praised as a visionary leader and consensus builder and derided as a GOP political hack, I can form an opinion of the selection process the UNC Board of Governors chose. The search for a new president to replace the popular and respected Tom Ross was carried out almost entirely in secrecy and without input from UNC faculty, administrators, or the public. According to press reports, only one candidate for the position was interviewed by the board before the vote to select Spellings, making the decision to hire Spellings an coronation, not a deliberative group decision.

The contrast between the UNC selection process and the one used just months earlier when Barton College chose a new president is startling. Barton, a small private college affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), selected Doug Searcy after a nationwide search that identified four finalists. Each of the finalists visited the campus in Wilson and met with faculty and students. The Barton Board of Trustees even invited selected members of the Wilson community to meet the candidates, question them and offer their impressions of the candidates. (I was one of the dozen or more community representatives.) Barton had followed the same exemplary process 12 years ago when it hired Norval Kneten for his successful and transforming presidency of the college.

It is sad that a small private college should set such a transparent and expansive example for inclusive decision-making while the state's public university (supported by taxpayer dollars) gives a lesson in exclusion, secretiveness, insular thinking, and arbitrariness.

The UNC system (and all of higher education in America) faces difficult times ahead, but the Board of Governors' decision to make the presidential selection process an enigma wrapped in political thinking and exclusion will not help the university's ability to face its challenges and retain the public's support.

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