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Identify the UI finalists and bring them to campus

John Westerfeld

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 7, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

There have been a wide variety of issues debated over many months now related to the search for a president of the University of Iowa. One of the most complex of these issues is the question of confidentiality. Some think that the finalists for the position should not be identified publicly and should not interview on campus. The fear is that finalists would pay a high price at their current place of employment if it is known that they are pursuing the UI presidency. Others argue that the finalists should be publicly identified and come to campus for interviews.

Although I think there are arguments on both sides of this issue, the preponderance of the evidence favors a more open, public search with on-campus interviews.

In 1991 I was a tenured associate professor at Auburn University and applied for a faculty position at Iowa. As a part of this process, I eventually came to Iowa City and interviewed. Once I interviewed at Iowa, people at Auburn knew of my interest in the Iowa job, and some faculty at Auburn were displeased I was pursuing another position. However, it would have been hard to fathom this process transpiring in secrecy, with few impacted people at either institution knowing about it and me not participating in an on-campus interview. I had to be willing to risk the reaction of the people at Auburn in order to pursue the position at Iowa.

Clearly, interviewing for a faculty position is not analogous to interviewing for the presidency of a university. Obviously, we are talking about a different level of hiring and a different type of situation. But I think philosophically we are talking about the same issue.

When someone pursues the U.S. presidency it is public. We don't hear people saying, if the candidate is a sitting senator for example, "it may make their home constituency mad if their names are made public." This obviously would be absurd. Candidates running for the U.S. presidency have to be willing to risk alienating members of their home constituency and have to be willing to put their names in the public domain. Are finalists for the presidency of a university entitled to more secrecy than those running for U.S. president? This analogy is, of course, imperfect, but it turns on the same principle.

There certainly are risks in a more open and public search. It may be the case that neither Mary Sue Coleman nor David Skorton would have ended up at Michigan and Cornell if those searches had been more open than they were. But more to the point in my view, both of them did end up at Iowa -- and in both cases those searches were open. Thus, although a closed search may be the preferred course of action in some situations, in my opinion it is not the best idea for UI, and especially not right now, given the way events have unfolded.

I think at a major public university in a state that prides itself on openness -- and in a situation where a large number of people appear to feel excluded from the process -- we need a more open and public search than has occurred thus far. Finalists should be brought to campus, identified and allowed to interact with the campus community.

Of course, a situation may arise whereby a truly outstanding candidate is unwilling to pursue the job if his or her name is made public. At that point, we face a complex dilemma with no good option. Do we continue to pursue that candidate with a confidential search? Do we tell the candidate that we are no longer interested if they are unwilling to be public about their interest? Do we still bring them to campus and have them interact with the campus community but attempt to keep their name confidential? Or do we urge the candidate to reconsider and be willing to have their name made public?

In the current situation we should do everything that is reasonable to open up the search and make it more public. That includes identifying the finalists and having them visit the campus for interviews.

Our university is struggling. What we need to help restore confidence and optimism is a more open and public search. The Iowa state Board of Regents, faculty, staff, students, alumni, people of Iowa, the university itself and the candidates deserve nothing less.
John Westerfeld is a professor of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations at the University of Iowa and chairs the UI committee on the selection of central academic officials.