The list of applicants for the top job at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, included a familiar name to many Mississippians: Rodney Bennett, the recently departed president of University of Southern Mississippi. 

Bennett’s name, along with 20 others, was published by a local newspaper earlier this year on July 14, his second-to-last day in the Dome. The governing board in Arkansas had released the list under the state’s open records law which mandates that the names of all applicants for public office, even unsuccessful ones, are subject to disclosure. 

But in Mississippi, Bennett’s replacement was determined through a process that operated almost entirely in the dark. 

Here, applicants for the position of college president are considered confidential and therefore exempt from public records requests. At USM, the campus didn’t know who was being considered for the job until late October when the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees suddenly cut the search short and announced it was permanently hiring Joe Paul, the interim president, without advertising the position. 

Across universities in the Southeast, Mississippi and Arkansas represent two extremes – total secrecy and complete openness – in the often controversial search process for identifying leaders of public universities, according to a review by Mississippi Today of state statutes, governing board policies and news articles. Arkansas is the only Southern state that has a search process that is entirely transparent, while Mississippi is one of three states that keep secret all applicants but the sole finalist.

Judith Wilde, a professor at George Mason University who studies presidential searches, described searches like this: “It’s sort of like in the ‘Wizard of Oz:’ At the end they raise the curtain, and there is one person.”

The review found that of 16 Southern states, a plurality (7) have statutes or policies in place that permit universities to announce multiple finalists for president. In practice, however, universities often flout those rules by claiming they can only announce one finalist – because the others withdrew their names from consideration

Even though the University of Florida was supposed to name multiple finalists under a new state law, the board announced only one, saying that out of the dozen candidates interviewed, all “requested complete confidentiality unless they were named as the sole finalist,” according to the Tampa Bay Times and Open Campus. 

In Louisiana, applicants for public office are public record but in 2015, a judge ruled that Louisiana State University only needed to turn over the names of four applicants who were interviewed or withdrew their names from consideration.

And in some states, each individual university board can determine how secret the process is going to be. In Oklahoma, for example, Oklahoma State University’s board has maintained that it “must hold in strictest confidence the identities of applicants” while Northern Oklahoma College announced multiple finalists for president last year.

Wilde said that when university presidents are selected in secret, the community doesn’t get a chance to determine if they’re qualified for the job even though the position is among the highest paid in every state. 

“Many of them are making more than a $1 million now, and yet there is no other public executive who is hired in secret,” Wilde said. “The president of the United States – they go through sometimes as much as a year of being vetted.” 

At public universities, presidential searches are mainly led by governing boards – it is often considered a board’s most important function – but the process used to be more collaborative. Wilde said that in many states, boards used to form search committees of students, faculty and staff who would write and post ads, interview candidates, deliberate in public and invite finalists to meet the whole campus community. 

Now, secrecy is the norm. In 2000, Mississippi was one of seven Southern states that allowed public universities to keep presidential applicants’ names confidential, according to an analysis by the National Association of College and University Attorneys. As of this year, that’s permitted by all but two states.

Wilde attributes this trend to governing boards’ increased reliance on executive headhunting firms that often require confidentiality in their contracts — to their benefit. 

“When things are secret, the search firm can use the same candidates over and over again,” Wilde said, “without having anybody know that.” 

Though headhunting firms often charge governing boards hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct searches, only about half provide background checks beyond the references that candidates provide, according to research by Wilde’s colleague at George Mason, James Finkelstein. 

Many universities say that confidentiality is necessary to attract the best candidates who won’t want to risk inviting ire at their current jobs by publicly applying elsewhere. But research by Frank LoMonte, the director of UF’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, found that closed searches didn’t result in more candidates from highly ranked universities than open searches. His research, conducted in 2017, compared Georgia’s secret process to those in Tennessee and Florida which had more open searches at the time. 

Rather, LoMonte found that closed searches tend to correlate with universities hiring from inside their system. 

“Excluding the public from participation in the hiring process appears to accrue primarily to the benefit of ‘insider’ candidates,” he wrote in an op-ed published by the American Association of University Professors. 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.