By: Regan Reeck
With reporting and writing contributed by Kourtney Husnick and KC Longley
An intriguingly ambiguous email from William Dube, the director of communications and media relations at Cleveland State University, pinged into the inboxes of multiple campus publications on Jan. 29, 2018, at 7:16 a.m. The concise email hinted slyly, “Cleveland State University will make a major announcement regarding the future of the university at a press conference on campus at 2 p.m. today.”
By 1:35 p.m., the speculation over the email abruptly stopped. Crain’s Cleveland Business newspaper published an article naming Harlan M. Sands as Cleveland State’s seventh president, ending a months-long search for Cleveland State’s president that began on June 20, 2017 when President Ronald M. Berkman announced his retirement. A month later, the Cleveland State Board of Trustees announced that it had selected Wheless Partners, an executive search firm, to manage the presidential search. In addition to the partnership with Wheless, the board appointed the members of the Presidential Search Committee — 24 individuals including two students, four faculty members, four from the board of trustees and various university personnel and community members.
The search continued through the latter half of 2017, with minimal details revealed publicly. The board of trustees required that all members of the search committee sign a non-disclosure agreement that is in place indefinitely.
While searches for university presidents are increasingly conducted in private — vetted by professional search firms — the fact that they are conducted largely behind closed doors, without any participation from the bulk of faculty, students, and administrators at a public university, raises serious concerns, in the view of a number of highly-placed faculty members at Cleveland State. Some professors that were interviewed for this article expressed a significant degree of apprehension about what the use of a private search said about the values and interests of the university and its board of trustees.
“If you look at it objectively, the trustees are mostly business people, they want to control the image,” Leo Jeffres, professor emeritus of communications, said. “CSU got a lot of negative publicity about this secrecy because it’s a public institution, it’s not run for profit and the public deserves to know what’s going on. The only thing you can think of is that they want to keep things so guarded because they’re afraid of criticism or that they didn’t want too much input because it makes it a messier process and they want the final decision. It’s a control factor.”
William Bowen, president of the faculty senate and a professor of public administration and urban studies weighed in on the issue.
“I think open searches are healthier because the presidential candidates get to meet the campus community and the campus community gets to meet the presidential candidates,” Bowen said. “They can form opinions about each other based on presentations and those opinions can make a difference.”
Bowen, speaking from his own research and prior experience with the search and selection of former president Michael Schwartz, noted that to his knowledge, all presidential searches at Cleveland State has been public prior to that of President Ronald M. Berkman in 2009.
The choice to keep a presidential search private and discrete is not uncommon in higher education. In June 2016, Judith A. Wilde and James H. Finkelstein of George Mason University reported at the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors, that more than 75 percent of university presidential searches in the 2015-2016 year used private search firms, to find, vet and offer a selection of candidates for university’s to select their next president from.
This practice stems from the fear that strong, potential candidates will not apply when there is a high-profile job opening due to the risk of alienating and losing their current position while not being guaranteed the one they’re applying for.
“Any high stakes selection process happening secretly is going to bring about some rumors, some hearsay, some awful suggestions people are making and people might respond somewhere along the lines of some fears and paranoias about what might happen,” Adam Sonstegard, the vice president of faculty senate said, speaking on what he observed from fellow faculty during the early days of the search.
While there was a sentiment of apprehension among some faculty, others, like Lee Fisher, the dean of the Cleveland Marshall College of Law, were not put off by a private search and recognized the merits of one.
“I always favor transparency over a lack of transparency. However I am aware that in these kinds of highly sensitive searches, you are not likely to necessarily get some of the best candidates if you are fully transparent,” Fisher said. “It’s a very careful balancing between practicality and getting the best candidates and transparency. I would say that this search process balanced it very well, because they did seek out input from a wide variety of constituencies, but in the end I think that they actually were smart in allowing candidates to apply and be considered without having them jeopardize their current employment.”
Sonstegard, who has been involved in multiple searches for faculty and administration throughout his tenure, spoke of the regular updates by Bernie Moreno, the chair of the board of trustees and the faculty on the search committee as a sign of it being “a democratic and egalitarian process.”
However, the secrecy and closed door practices of the presidential search has left some members of the campus community apprehensive.
A professor of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, who wishes to remain anonymous, expressed their worries about an incoming president whose character is known only through his resume and a speech at a press conference.
“[The closed search] makes it hard for you to feel comfortable. Who did we pick to replace the current president? And why? And what are the reasons? There is no comparison with the other candidates that we’re familiar with,” a professor who has been with the university for nearly 20 years, said. “You don’t know what you’re missing, and we don’t really know what we’re getting because we haven’t heard anything about this person except for a summary — a brief summary.”
For some, this question of what’s missing, what the unknown is, plays heavily into the veiled decision making of the board.
Mentioning briefly a conversation regarding the lack of discussion concerning the place of graduate students at Cleveland State during the search process, Jeffres makes a pointed observation.
“That’s the type of things that are missing, they might not want to have the discussion, but it’s not their institution, it’s the institution of the people of Ohio,” Jeffres said.
Rob Spademan, Cleveland State associate vice president of university marketing and chief marketing officer pointed out that the process was open in important respects.
“It was an intentional, open process from the perspective that all walks of life are represented on that committee and you can see that if you look at the names online, so we had a very broad perspective with those 24,” Spademan said. Moreno also held dozens of meetings with people who work in this search committee around town to talk about what they thought the next president of Cleveland State should bring with them in terms of their background their skills and even perhaps focus for the university going forward.”
“Everybody on the search committee or related to that activity signed a confidentiality agreement, you have to respect people’s confidentiality,” Spademan added. “Our goal from the beginning was to get really great candidates who are in really good jobs right now, there’s a difference between people who are looking for a job and people who [already] have a great job.”
However, faculty critical of the process point out that the majority of the Cleveland State community were not privy to who the potential candidates were, their qualifications and whether or not those in the running to be the university’s next president held values that represented the goals and mission of the university. Instead, that responsibility was entrusted to the individuals selected to the presidential search committee.
Moreno explained, during the presidential reveal to the campus community, that 140 people applied for the position, which was narrowed to 19 by Wheless Partners who then sent in their resumes to the university’s search committee. Moreno said that these candidates were asked to answer nine questions, which he did not elaborate on. The 19 were then reduced to 10 and after a round of interviews, narrowed once again to five potential candidates. None of the other candidates for presidency are known.
It is significant enough to note that when speaking with Spademan, there were some discrepancies with the numbers regarding applicants.
“171 [applied] and that got down to what was initially presented to the search committee, which were 17 candidates,” Spademan said. “The search committee rated each candidate and then met and decided. They picked eight candidates to enter, all along the goal to have three candidates that they would then hand off to the board of trustees.”
Bowen spoke for a more open search, and while not on the search committee, he had been involved in the search since its beginnings, and attempted to persuade the board of trustees to have a public search for the president-elect.
“Presidents need faculty support. The way president’s fail – one of the ways – is they lose the support of the faculty,” Bowen said. “I can’t imagine someone who really understands higher education, somebody who would really be a top-notch president wanting to come on board on a campus where the faculty has already said ‘we’re not working with you,’ that’s just a recipe for failure and when you have a closed search you risk that. Then nobody wins, students, faculty, nobody wins.”
At the same time, Bowen, and Vickie Gallagher, associate professor of management and head of the ad-hoc committee that organized the process of relaying faculty concerns and priorities to the search committee, spoke highly of president-elect Sands. Bowen, for his part, offered credit to the president-elect, saying that that he believes Sands will step in and wear the many hats required of a university president.
“I think he’s got a high level of integrity and I intuitively trust him,” Bowen said. “I think he’s a leader, I think he’s got good leadership skills. He genuinely values academic values, or at least that’s my perception.”
Gallagher said she views Sands’ current position as the vice dean and chief financial officer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania as an indicator of his capacity to lead the university.
“I don’t feel, at least not yet, that any of this is lip service, I don’t feel that [Sands] is just [coming and speaking to the university] because he’s been asked to do it,” Gallagher said. “I know from best practices in management that what you should do, and all major institutions in this global world do this — engage employees, flatten their organization and try to make sure that they’re hearing all sides, and because of his background and his pedigree he knows all of this.”
Even though the search process was not an entirely public one, the ad hoc committee is taking steps to gather representative faculty input for president-elect Sands. The priorities gathered by the ad hoc committee, while not officially set, represent a compilation of responses to a survey sent out to all faculty on campus. The top priorities of the faculty include: Creating a culture of shared leadership and building a strong relationship between administration and faculty, strengthening academic excellence and building on what success the university already has, focusing resources on supporting faculty and students and strategically planning to achieve both long term and short term goals with the resources available to the university.
While faculty members’ concerns have been made clear, the qualities and goals that the student body wants remain in doubt. Citing the non-disclosure agreement they signed, both Sierra Davidson and John DeMarco, student representatives to the board of trustees at Cleveland State declined to comment on the roles they played in the presidential search and deferred to Spademan for comment.
Bowen, while acknowledging that the student representatives involved in the search acted in the way they thought best, offered another criticism of the tight-lipped search.
“The bigger problem with the search we just did was with representing student concerns. None of the people from the campus community, because of the non-disclosure agreement, were able to talk with the people that they were representing,” Bowen said. “How do you represent somebody that you can’t talk with?”
For its part, the university has maintained a scripted, tightly-controlled policy in commenting on the presidential search. In attempting to reach out to President Berkman and Chairman Moreno for comment, The Cauldron received this email from William Dube.
While Sands earned high marks for his press conference, providing a promising beginning to his term, concerns stemming from the secrecy of the process continue to vex some faculty members.
“So far, the information we received, the messages, the announcements from the board are more business-related, like ‘we will make the university great and there will be changes,’” the faculty member who preferred to be anonymous said. “There’s lots of hints about changes and whoever is not ready for change should prepare for change, but we don’t know which changes. What changes are we talking about? Change is good, but in what way?”