State’s hiring of new Georgia Southern president locked out public input

In criticizing the  selection process for the new Georgia Southern University president, a college professor says, “The public deserves an open process from start to finish. “

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In criticizing the selection process for the new Georgia Southern University president, a college professor says, “The public deserves an open process from start to finish. “

Matthew Boedy is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia and frequent AJC Get Schooled contributor.

In this piece, Boedy discusses an increasingly common practice among public universities and school districts to skirt the spirit of transparency around searches for new leaders – releasing the name of a single finalist.

Under Georgia law, state and local agencies are required to make public a list of up to three finalists for top jobs before they make a final decision. The law is intended to let the public express an opinion on job candidates.

However, it is now standard in Georgia to release a list of finalists that contains just one name so no one --- including the citizens who will be paying the salaries of these new hires --- can second-guess the decision or offer feedback.

The point of our Sunshine laws is to give the public a voice. Today, Boedy shares a disappointing example of the University System of Georgia silencing that voice in the hiring of University of West Georgia President Kyle Marrero to lead Georgia Southern.

By Matthew Boedy

Right before the end of the fall semester, a "news" site "strongly biased toward conservative causes" used our state's public records law to request a batch of my emails. In its request, Campus Reform, which is funded by a conservative student training institute, asked for emails I wrote or written to me from January 1 to December 1 that include these keywords: Trump, Turning Point, Charlie Kirk, and fascist.

Readers of this blog will remember my abiding interesting in Kirk and his organization, Turning Point USA. In writing about that organization for this blog and other places, I have mentioned the president.

My university swept through my taxpayer-funded inbox and billed Campus Reform as the law allows. Campus Reform hasn’t paid that bill yet, but if it does, it will find nothing newsworthy.

I have nothing to hide. Our transparency laws should hold accountable our publicly elected officials and those who work for the public like myself.

I tell this story and make that bold claim to encourage changes in the process that selects our publicly funded higher education institutions.

The AJC has noted the recent plethora of openings in Georgia higher education.

Sadly, the process to fill these positions likely will disrespect the spirit of our transparency laws as other searches have.

This week the University System of Georgia/Board of Regents announced after a closed process a single finalist for the presidency of Georgia Southern, the president of the University of West Georgia.

This kind of process is spreading  across the nation.

Even more vexing is the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2017 "governing boards already are requiring search committee members to sign confidentiality agreements." It would be no surprise that if this happened at Georgia Southern.

The American Association of University Professors, the group that represents faculty across our state and nation, recognizes the presidential search process as a "classic conflict between the right of individual privacy and the public's right to know."

George Mason professor Judith Wilde argues a closed process implicitly benefits "the search firm that is paid to find the candidates" and stands "at odds with standard practices for hiring other public executives, as well as contrary to the core values of a university."

But more importantly, a single finalist from a closed search disrespects the public.

Not surprisingly bad results occur from such actions. See Kennesaw State and its non-search for a single candidate, the underqualified Sam Olens.

The USG promised a more transparent process to replace Olens that included a presidential search committee of faculty, staff, students, alumni and KSU’s local community, and three to five candidates considered.

Despite calls from faculty for an open process the second search was closed and also named one finalist. The regents discussed three final candidates but only called one a "finalist" thus only forcing the release of one name.

The common argument in favor of a closed process and naming only one finalist is that top-notch candidates are scared to apply under a more public process.

Yet public processes do not stop better applicants from applying to schools in other states like Florida. Though schools in Florida have found creative ways to skirt public transparency requirements.

Did I mention I was hired under a process grounded in public records laws? If you wanted, and had the money, you can read the emails people in my university and department traded about me and the other finalist.

The best process would be to conduct an open search and then announce the names of the final candidates (aka more than one), who will visit the campus and make presentations to different campus interest groups. Like provost searches. Such actions would foster a healthy dialogue and constituents then could opine to those charged with representing faculty, students, and staff.

Even if a fully public process from start to finish isn’t going to happen under current Georgia conditions, the trend we are seeing needs to be reversed.

How might that happen? I doubt the regents and the USG will turn back on their own. They have ignored the few faculty who have spoken out. So, then it is up to all faculty to refuse to sit on any closed presidential search committee. And if a president is chosen from the single finalist announcement, faculty must vote quickly for a no-confidence in that person, despite whatever resume or reputation they bring.

In the end, if a conservative “news” site can get whatever words I write on my taxpayer-funded email, then that same standard of transparency should apply to the process for choosing those who lead our institutions.

The public deserves an open process from start to finish. If not that, it deserves a plurality of choices so they can offer their opinion to the overseers who are accountable in our democratic process.

One finalist is not a choice. It disrespects the idea of choice.

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