There have been numerous examples in recent years of presidential searches at public universities that wind up shrouded in secrecy. It’s happened at the University of Mississippi and Michigan State University and Youngstown State University, just to name a few. And such secrecy is now enshrined in Florida law. 

Some, like the president of Youngstown State’s board, have argued confidentiality is necessary: it allows institutions to attract candidates without fear of current employers finding out. But this lack of transparency does a disservice to the students and communities that public universities serve. 

The University of Minnesota has recently proven it doesn’t have to be this way. For the first time in recent memory, the university had three public finalists for the top job. (The board ended up backing Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Michigan.) 

The university has faced criticism in the past for presidential searches ending with just one public finalist. (Because of a Minnesota law that says candidates must be named publicly before final interviews with the Board of Regents, some prior presidential hopefuls have dropped out to avoid being identified.)

“It wasn’t that the university in the past has not sought to have, and worked very hard to have, multiple candidates. They have,” Janie S. Mayeron, chair of the Board of Regents, told me this week. Past candidates all knew their names would come out at the finalist stage, she said, so “at the end of the day, they all dropped out.”

This time, search consultants and the chair of the search committee “worked very hard to encourage candidates to stay with the process and allow themselves to be identified,” Mayeron said. The Board of Regents also took internal and external feedback on earlier steps, including the makeup of the search committee and the position statement for the role, she said. 

The three finalists also went on a listening tour, of sorts. They visited the university’s five campuses. They participated in 15 public forums and 15 open houses. The reach of those events was pretty tremendous: 780 people attended in-person and several thousand watched the forums either via livestream or after the fact, Mayeron said. 

The process ended in public interviews with the board. When I tuned into the live-streamed proceedings late last month, I saw more than 500 other people watching too. 

Amy Morona, our reporter at Signal Cleveland, followed this process closely because Cleveland State University President Laura Bloomberg was one of the three finalists.

Bloomberg told her Faculty Senate after losing out on the job that she stuck with the process, despite the awkwardness of being a public finalist, in part because she wanted to be a good example for her students. 

“We encourage them to take risks, to put themselves out there, to stretch, to be vulnerable enough to try something that they haven’t tried before,” she said. “They were very much in my mind as I grappled with this very public process.” 

Processes like this can go a long way in building trust between a university and its community, something that we know is on the decline

That was a point that Tom Olson, an Orono, Minn., resident and a member of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee, made in a recent letter to the editor of The Star Tribune: “In this era of toxic rhetoric, lack of respect for differing opinions and little tolerance for compromise, this search was the polar opposite and on full display to all constituencies.”

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Elsewhere on Open Campus

Student Leah Richardson, 37, at a coffee shop near Santa Rosa Junior College on Feb. 20, 2024. Photo by Laure Andrillon for CalMatters Credit: Laure Andrillon

From California: Adam Echelman at our partner CalMatters wrote recently about California’s interesting approach to get formerly incarcerated people and foster youth into college: They’re paying them. It’s a $30 million program called Hire UP, and pays students for hours spent in a classroom or doing school work. 

The money is a “glimmer of hope,” Jess Paisley, a college counselor told Adam. “How do you focus on turning in your Canvas assignment if you don’t even know where you’re going to charge your computer tonight, or sleep, or get your next meal?”

From Indianapolis: In Indiana, just 13% of student parents graduate in four years. Childcare access is a major barrier. Yet there’s only one college — Martin University — in Indianapolis with free, on-site childcare for its students. Claire Rafford at our partner Mirror Indy spent some time there. 

From Tampa Bay: Divya Kumar spoke to professors who teach the history course that will now replace sociology in the gen-ed curriculum at Florida’s public colleges and universities. Her story does a good job of centering the real people at the center of the fracas. 

“It would have been ideal if this had simply been added on to the choices rather than replacing somebody else’s class,” one professor said. “But I think it’s a solid course.”

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