January 30, 2009
JACKSON -- State college board president Amy Whitten defends the way Mississippi university presidents are selected, with candidates'' names officially cloaked in secrecy while public speculation abounds on who''s being considered behind closed doors.
"That''s 100 percent in line with most of the higher education community and CEO searches in the private sector," Whitten said of the confidential process.
She met last week with the Senate Universities and Colleges Committee to discuss presidential searches.
The state Board of Institutions of Higher Learning just began looking for a new University of Mississippi chancellor to be in place by the end of June, when long-serving Chancellor Robert Khayat retires.
The 12-member board has a policy to keep secret the names of people being considered as candidates until it picks the one person it wants as a university''s chief executive. Whitten said this is done mainly to protect candidates so they won''t get fired from their current jobs for seeking employment elsewhere.
The search for Ole Miss'' next chief executive comes just a couple of months after the board concluded intense searches for new presidents to lead Mississippi State University and Mississippi Valley State University.
The IHL board -- which governs Mississippi''s eight universities -- has been criticized by state legislators and others for being too secretive in how it recruits and appoints presidents.
Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, has filed a bill to create separate governing boards for each university. He said these campus boards would be more accessible to the public and more attentive to each university''s needs. However, he acknowledged the legislation -- which would require changing the state constitution -- probably won''t be adopted.
"It''s going to be awfully tough to pass," Chism said.
The state Legislature passed a law last year to encourage the board to make its presidential searches more open. The House and Senate directed a committee to study "the process of selecting university presidents and chancellors to assure that the process for selection is open, transparent and will result in the selection of qualified" candidates.
However, the board rebuffed pleas to reveal the names of presidential finalists. Whitten said Monday the current presidential selection method improves the previous approaches the board has taken, in which names of the top candidates were revealed to the public.
"I think we''ve made it better," said Whitten, who noted she''s seen better-qualified candidates come forward to fill presidential vacancies.
She said the confidential presidential search process is similar to other public universities -- such as the University of North Carolina and University of Texas.
However, it''s unlike the ongoing presidential search at Kansas State University, which has announced Mississippi State University Vice President Kirk Schulz is one of the two candidates for the KSU job. Schulz went to Kansas more than a week ago to be interviewed.
Before the chancellor at East Carolina University Thursday withdrew as a finalist for the president''s job at KSU, there were three candidates.
Steve Ballard''s decision to pull out of the selection process leaves Schulz and University of Maine President Robert Kennedy in the running for the KSU seat.
Ballard said in a statement that the interview process reminded him what a "great place" East Carolina University is and how much he enjoys working there.
Everything but the names
Whitten said the Mississippi board provides ample information about its search process -- but not the names of candidates -- and seeks input from a select group of about 25 university representatives on who should be president. They must take an oath to not publicly reveal names before they review resumes and suggest potential presidents for the board to interview.
"I think we''ve learned to rely more heavily on the campus advisory committee," Whitten said.
For the Ole Miss search, the IHL board will get at least five nominees recommended by the advisory committee of students, faculty, alumni and others. Board members will then conduct closed-door interviews and determine their preferred candidate.
The named candidate will visit the campus to meet with university students, faculty, alumni and other constituents before being confirmed.
The IHL board in November appointed Mark Keenum as MSU president after enduring a tumultuous search process.