As the 16-member University of Missouri search committee for a new system president nears the end of its work, it promises to keep names of applicants secret until the final choice is made. The rationale is familiar. A secret process will attract better candidates who don’t want their current employers to know they are looking elsewhere. A secret process will relieve committee members and applicants from bothersome public attention. A secret process will give the public fewer reasons to second-guess the work of the committee until only one finalist is left standing.
These excuses have some merit, but do they measure up against a policy of disclosure?
As a general principle, public agencies should operate openly so constituents can second-guess their activities. In the current case, public knowledge of the applicants and finalists gives the world a chance to deliver potentially helpful information about the prospects. How a candidate for a top public job deals with an open selection process might tell a lot about fitness for the office. We learn more about the function of the selection committee.
Florida’s Sunshine Law applies to university search committees. All applicants’ names are posted publicly. Finalists are identified and interviewed publicly. Recently the University of Florida released the names of three finalists touted for their exemplary credentials. The university had plenty of applicants not dissuaded by the public process. They were encouraged by the high salary and other benefits offered, but that’s part of the public process citizens can observe in action.
At the University of Missouri, we will learn nothing except the name of the person chosen to be the next president. We have heard reports from search committee members that they are receiving a good pool of applicants, and no doubt curators will say the same when they make the final decision, but this vague allegation is not the same as knowing and learning about the applicants.
Of course selection officials and applicants will say they prefer secrecy when privately asked, but the experience in Florida demonstrates the value of an open process. Perhaps the Missouri General Assembly, in the mood lately to be more demanding of UM, will consider making a productive requirement rather than another punishment. If legislators consider requiring presidential selection openness under the state Sunshine Law, they will have to overcome their own penchant for secrecy, but since the demand will visit on the university instead of themselves, who knows.
Out of concern for my personal mortality, I’m not holding my breath.
Meanwhile, let us hope for the best as a new UM president is chosen. Of course it’s possible for the best choice to be made even in a secret process, just not as likely.