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WSU regents may choose new president on Friday, but secrecy rankles faculty

UPDATED: Thu., March 24, 2016

FILE - Dr. Lisa Brown, chancellor of WSU Spokane, left, listens as Dr. Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University, talks about the formation of the new WSU medical school Monday, May 4, 2015 at WSU Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Dr. Lisa Brown, chancellor of WSU Spokane, left, listens as Dr. Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University, talks about the formation of the new WSU medical school Monday, May 4, 2015 at WSU Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – The board of regents for Washington State University might choose the school’s next president at a Friday meeting on the Tri-Cities campus – but until a consensus is reached, every candidate’s identity will remain a secret.

Regent Mike Worthy, the search committee’s chairman, told the Associated Press three finalists will be discussed at the public meeting in Richland, but their identities will not be revealed. If the regents don’t reach a consensus, the decision will be deferred to a later meeting, he said. Only the winner will be named.

The regents seek to replace popular President Elson Floyd, who died in June at age 59. The committee leading the search decided early it would not release candidates’ names, even at the finalist level, to attract quality applicants without tipping off their current employers.

The secrecy has spurred criticism from some WSU faculty members.

“I think it’s absolutely absurd that we’re kept in total secrecy so the candidates are protected,” said Donna Potts, a WSU English professor. “Those misplaced priorities do not serve us well.”

Potts spearheaded a Faculty Senate resolution calling for more transparency in the presidential search. She said the process should involve public introductions and question-and-answer sessions with each finalist to help ensure the president and faculty would work well together.

The senate unanimously passed the resolution in October, but Potts said the regents gave it no consideration.

“What they’re not considering is if a bad choice is made and they don’t have faculty support,” she said. “It’s really concerning that they don’t even care how the faculty feels.”

Students also have taken issue with the process. The Daily Evergreen, the student-run newspaper, recently published an op-ed calling for increased transparency. But Potts said the faculty has more at stake, as most students “have a relatively short-term investment in the university.”

WSU officials have repeatedly defended the process, saying it’s a standard approach and the best way to land the ideal candidate. Job applicants are covered by an exemption in Washington public records laws.

The main advantage to the closed process, officials said, is that men and women currently serving in top posts at other schools are more willing to apply because there is little chance someone will learn they’re looking for another job. A major downside, however, is that the search committee can’t ask applicants’ current employers for performance assessments.

Earlier this month, the committee announced it had narrowed an original list of about 200 prospects to eight finalists, including women and members of minority groups, presidents and provosts from other universities, and a candidate from the private sector. It’s not clear who made it into the final three.

Interim President Dan Bernardo will return to the job of provost when the new president takes office.

As the Seattle Times reported in April, the University of Washington regents weighed the pros and cons of a closed process before appointing Ana Mari Cauce to replace former President Michael Young, who abruptly left UW in February, taking a job as president of Texas A&M University. Cauce, the former provost, had been serving as interim president.

In 2006, the year Floyd was hired, Eastern Washington University opted for an open process, bringing finalists to campus for a series of meetings with faculty and students, before hiring Rodolfo Arevalo as president.

Floyd, who previously served as president of the University of Missouri system, “was hired using an almost identical process to the one we’re following now,” WSU spokesman Robert Strenge said. Faculty members decried the process then, too.

“Whether Floyd would have applied for a job that required him to reveal his candidacy publicly isn’t anything I ever heard him discuss,” Strenge said.

The regents’ meeting starts at 8 a.m. and will be broadcast live at locations on WSU’s Pullman and Spokane campuses. The presidential search is the last item on their agenda.

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