UW search needs more transparency
UW search needs more transparency

UW search needs more transparency

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This is no way to pick a University of Wisconsin System president:

The search committee didn’t include a member of the faculty or staff, needlessly creating distrust. Details on the number and types of applicants, as well as the identities of top contenders, were hidden from the public. Then the sole finalist for the job backed out just as he was about to be hired.

Now UW System faces months of uncertainty as the search is rebooted — and as the System’s 13 universities across 26 campuses face dire financial and health challenges because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Our state universities and their students deserve better. This time, the UW Board of Regents needs to get it right. It must be transparent and inclusive about what it is doing and who it might hire. That’s a much better way to build public confidence in its decisions and the direction of higher education in our state.

University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen withdrew his name from consideration Friday just hours before the search committee planned to recommend him to the full Board of Regents. It was an unfortunate loss of a promising candidate, despite the flawed process that led to his selection.

Johnsen’s record of thinking big about how best to structure Alaska’s universities with limited resources — while at the same time advocating for solid funding — could have been a good fit here. The next UW System president will need to foster a strong relationship with the Legislature in pursuit of greater state support.

The pandemic undoubtedly made the search more difficult. It limited travel. It distracted potential candidates. With the economy sinking, some applicants may have chosen not to risk a big move.

These are strange and challenging times.

The Madison School District similarly lost its pick for superintendent in April. Matthew Guiterrez, who leads a Texas school district, rescinded his acceptance of the local position, citing the public health crisis as his reason.

But Madison’s search produced three finalists for the public to meet and consider. UW System’s process led to just one.

UW officials say other finalists for the job of System president dropped out, and pulling a semifinalist into the top pool would have been disingenuous. That’s plausible. Yet the System’s successful pursuit of a state law in 2015 allowing it to hide the names of top job candidates shows a lack of commitment to transparency.

Some applicants for top UW jobs worry that being identified as finalists might hurt their standing with their current employers, especially if they aren’t hired here. That’s an understandable concern. But the much more compelling priority must be openness with the broader public who pays the bills, and who deserves input on big decisions involving public institutions.

And in the end, the flawed search wasn’t even fair to Johnsen. Even if he had accepted the job, he would have faced intense scrutiny from those who felt shut out of the process.

The Regents should learn from their mistakes. They should add a faculty representative to the next search committee. They should promise greater transparency throughout the hiring process. They absolutely must release a list of finalists to the public before picking the best one.


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