MSU's closed presidential search sparks debate

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Interim MSU President John Engler says tenure reform is something he will pursue.

Back in the 1990s, Michigan State University faced a fierce legal fight after deciding to search for a new president in private.

When the student newspaper published a confidential list of more than 100 potential candidates, the Board of Trustees scrapped the search and started over with a smaller committee that operated in tight secrecy.

The Detroit News and the Lansing State Journal sued, alleging the trustees had violated the state's Open Meetings Act. The case went before the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the board conducting a private presidential search.

"[A]pplication of the (Open Meetings Act) to committees formed by governing boards of public universities to assist in the selection of university presidents is unconstitutional," the high court concluded in its 1999 ruling.

Now, as MSU seeks a permanent replacement for former President Lou Anna Simon by June 2019, officials have again decided to conduct a closed search, a decision that has sparked renewed controversy at the state's largest university.

This time, MSU is at a crossroads as it works to rebuild trust and bring in a leader who will help the community heal after being rocked by the scandal involving serial pedophile Larry Nassar, who sexually assaulted athletes for nearly three decades under the guise of medical treatment.

Nassar victims and their supporters blasted last month's decision by the search committee to keep its work private, saying the lack of a transparent hiring process sends the wrong message to survivors, students and others. 

"The community just does not trust the leadership anymore," said Natalie Rogers, a spokeswoman for the activist group Reclaim MSU. "The Board of Trustees has gone against our will and we don’t trust them to find the best possible candidate."

But leaders of the hiring effort say they followed the recommendation of the search firm they hired and Teresa Sullivan, the former University of Virginia president who is advising the board on its presidential search. Their key takeaway: An open search would scare off many of the best candidates. 

Michigan State University Trustees Dianne Byrum, left and Melanie Foster are heading the school's search for a permanent president.

"The next president is likely employed some place right now," said Dianne Byrum, an MSU board member and co-chair of the search committee. "They are not going to want to jeopardize their names in a public search when they might not be a finalist."

Bill Funk — founder and President of R. William Funk & Associates, a Dallas-based presidential search firm that has helped sit hundreds of new presidents in higher education — said he is neutral on open versus closed searches and tells boards and search committees it can be done either way.

If an institution has an open process, however, Funk said he informs search committees that they are not going to have any sitting presidents in the pool because they are reluctant to put their names out in a public search.

But MSU — a leading public research institution and member of he Association of American Universities —  is in a uniquely complicated situation, he said.

"Here’s an institution, because of what it has gone through, you’d want to be as transparent as you possibly could be," said Funk. "We know that public trust is not at a high level, so you want to do everything to build that."

"And yet because of what it’s going though," Funk continued, "and its current situation, you’d really like to be able to recruit someone who sat in that president’s chair and who has dealt with complex, sometimes controversial issues. And that you get to that axiom of they are not going to come into the process open. So there are two competing, very important principles."

Sometimes, universities seek to balance discretion with transparency by inviting an additional panel of distinguished faculty and community leaders to the final interviews of candidates, with the stipulation that the new members sign confidentiality agreements.

"That still won’t please everybody," said Funk. "It does demonstrate that (the university) is getting additional input from a broader array of constituents."

The breakdown in trust at MSU started in 2016 when the first abuse accusations against Nassar emerged from Rachael Denhollander and more women came forward with similar stories. MSU officials responded that they knew nothing about what he had done.

"While many in the community today wish that they had identified Nassar as a predator, we believe the evidence in this case will show that no one else at MSU knew that Nassar engaged in criminal behavior," former federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who led an internal MSU inquiry into the Nassar case, wrote in 2017 in a response to a request for information from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Then Simon, along with former Athletic Director Mark Hollis, resigned in January as the breadth of Nassar's crimes was becoming clearer. Schuette has since charged Simon with lying to a peace office about what she knew about Nassar  — accusations that her lawyers say have no merit. 

MSU interim President John Engler has made many comments about and toward Nassar's victims that have angered them and their supporters and eroded trust in what MSU's leaders are going to do next, said Rogers.

An open process, Rogers added, will allow the community to have input into the trustees' most important decision — the selection of a leader to guide MSU through the trauma inflicted by Nassar and the university's response.

"I can appreciate their opinion and it was considered," Byrum said.

She added that the search committee has hosted 22 input sessions in recent weeks to hear from a wide swath of the MSU community to prepare itself for the search. The panel also has regularly updated the community on its progress, she said.

"The goal is to hire the best possible president for MSU and it has to be from the strongest pool of candidates," said Byrum. "In order to meet those goals, it has to be a confidential search."

Byrum pointed to the presidential search underway at University of Minnesota, saying only one of the three finalists was willing to be named publicly. She said she doesn't want that to happen in MSU's search process.

"We want the MSU community to move forward," Byrum said.

Officials at Oakland University, which held public candidate interviews that led to the hiring last year of President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, declined to comment on the reasons they conducted an open search.

Meanwhile, experts are split on the issue.

Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, said MSU made the right call to keep the search closed.

"It's a very competitive national leadership marketplace," said Hurley. "Prospective candidates are lame ducks at their institution if it's known they are interested in another opportunity, no matter how great that opportunity is.

"I might not say that for a smaller university," Hurley continued, "but for a nationally and globally recognized university such as MSU, I can’t imagine it being any other way."

But Dennis Clausen, an English professor at the University of San Diego, disagreed.

He wrote a paper, Behind Closed Doors? The Value of Shared Governance, for September-October 1997 edition of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. Though that paper was published a while ago, Clausen said he still feels the same.

"I think a closed search always makes it more difficult for the new president to gain the confidence of the entire university community," said Clausen. "There will always be lingering suspicions regarding the motives behind the decision to have a closed search.

"A presidential search, if it is open, can bring an entire university community together. A closed search seldom accomplishes that very fundamental goal."