Georgia Tech campus
Photo: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM/JOHN SPINK / AJC
Photo: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM/JOHN SPINK / AJC

Georgia campuses debate value of ‘closed’ presidential job hunts

It all seemed to happen fast, too fast, for some Georgia Tech students.

State officials announced June 6 that Ángel Cabrera was the sole finalist to become the school’s next president, replacing G.P. “Bud” Peterson, who announced his retirement plans in January. Seven days later, the Georgia Board of Regents voted to hire Cabrera, a Georgia Tech alumnus who has been president of George Mason University since July 2012.

Some faculty and students at Georgia Tech hoped to meet Cabrera before he got the job and wanted to know who else had applied. Neither happened.

In recent years, more states, including Georgia, have conducted what the higher education industry calls “closed” — and others describe as secretive — searches for college presidents where one finalist is named and little to no information is shared about other job candidates. Critics have complained the process lacks transparency and can mean the first a campus sees of its new leader is after the person is hired. Others say the secrecy is necessary to get the highest level of candidate and to protect the candidates from backlash in their current jobs.

How leaders are chosen

Years ago, Georgia officials announced three to five finalists for a college president job, and they often held public meetings on campus. But recently, business leaders who are more comfortable with a private selection process practiced in their companies have joined boards that hire college presidents, experts say. A search firm does the research, one finalist is named and little is shared publicly about other candidates.

Ángel Cabrera, the incoming president of Georgia Tech, was announced as the sole finalist for the job in early June.
Photo: Evan Cantwell/Creative Services/George Mason University 

University System of Georgia rules say the authority to name one or more finalists for president rests exclusively with the Board of Regents for its four research institutions, which include Georgia Tech. Finalists can, as officials said occurred in the Georgia Tech search, withdraw their names if they are not selected as the sole finalist. By withdrawing their names, their identities are kept from the public.

Sumter Alston, 20, a fourth-year student majoring in math and physics, was stunned by how fast Cabrera was hired, and disappointed students lacked more input, a concern he’s heard from a few classmates. He suggested the decision should have been delayed until more students were on campus.

“It was not transparent in the slightest,” Alston said of the process.

Georgia officials say this process is the best way to get top candidates for these jobs. Eleven sitting college presidents nationwide applied for the Georgia Tech position. Interest would have been much less, officials said, if the searches were conducted with requirements that the names of all candidates or finalists were publicized.

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Many college presidents are reluctant to publicly disclose their interest in another position, fearing their current employer will find out and ultimately force them out. Two finalists withdrew their candidacies to become the University of Minnesota’s president in December because they were only willing to be named publicly if they were the sole finalist, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported. Minnesota’s public college system typically names three finalists for a presidential vacancy and when each candidate will visit the campus.

“The presidential search process, as outlined in board policy, is designed to balance a candidate’s right to privacy with the public’s right to know,” University System of Georgia spokeswoman Jen Ryan said in a statement.

There has been mixed reaction to Georgia Tech’s process.

The school held forums in late February to discuss the process and allowed students to submit online feedback about what characteristics its next president should have.

One Georgia Tech student group, the Young Democratic Socialists of America, complained after Cabrera was named the finalist that “this process was of a totally undemocratic and corporate nature. The selection process intentionally shut out student voices.”

“The presidential search process, as outlined in board policy, is designed to balance a candidate’s right to privacy with the public’s right to know,” University System of Georgia spokeswoman Jen Ryan.

Student government association leaders wrote in a joint letter after Cabrera was hired that the process “has provided an opportunity for the entire campus community — students, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders — to openly discuss the direction we want to see Georgia Tech embrace.”

Complaints have also been made about the selection process at other public universities in Georgia, such as in 2017 when former Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens was hired to lead Kennesaw State, and earlier this year when Kyle Marrero was picked as president of Georgia Southern. Both men were sole finalists for their jobs, and no other candidates were announced.

When Olens resigned after just 16 months on the job, some Kennesaw State faculty and students wanted to see the finalists in a public meeting on campus before his successor was picked. The state held such a meeting, but it was with the sole finalist, Pamela Whitten, who got the job.

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Presenting sole finalists for jobs is often done in other parts of the education world. Most metro Atlanta school districts name one finalist for a superintendent position, as Fulton County did in April, but they are required to give a minimum of 14 days for public input on a finalist.

Matthew Tzuker, a recruiting partner at Heller Search Associates, headquartered near Boston, wrote a commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month defending the value of closed searches. Committees reviewing the applicants, instead of a potential circus of faculty grillings of candidates at public forums, is the better option, Tzuker wrote.

“What kind of college or university has a faculty that consents to a secretive process and the loss of control over the selection of the leader, you ask? A healthy one,” he wrote.

The search firm process

The University System has arrangements with 11 firms that can conduct searches when it needs to hire a president for one of its 26 schools. The system is currently looking for companies interested in doing searches for them over the next five years.

The Georgia Tech search, which began in February, was conducted by Heidrick & Struggles, a global executive search firm headquartered in Chicago, which was paid $200,000. The company’s work included identifying and vetting potential candidates. A 22-member search committee of seven Regents, seven faculty members, both student government presidents, business leaders and staff reviewed the candidates.

“It was not transparent in the slightest,” Georgia Tech student Sumter Alston, 20, said of the process selecting the university’s new president.

Nationally, college presidential searches used to be done differently. In the mid-1970s, only 2% of searches were conducted by firms, said Judith Wilde, a professor and chief operating officer of George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Today, more than 90% of searches are conducted by firms, she said.

Wilde and professor emeritus James Finkelstein are widely considered the experts on college presidential searches, and have concerns about colleges using search firms. Their research found search firms contacted candidate references about half the time. In some instances, the firms missed or omitted important information about candidates, she said. Georgia has rules requiring search firms to conduct accurate searches or they must redo them at no cost to the school, officials said.

A 22-member search committee including members of Georgia’s Board of Regents, seen here, reviewed the candidates for president of Georgia Tech. 
Photo: Eric Stirgus/AJC.com

Critics have also questioned aspects of search firm contracts. Wilde thought it odd, for example, that the contract terms between the Board of Regents and Heidrick & Struggles included a provision that firm is not or will not “engage in a boycott of Israel.”

Another criticism of search firms is the lack of diverse candidate pools. At least two presidential searches nationally were reopened because the candidates lacked racial or gender diversity, Wilde said. Georgia officials do not keep data by gender or race of its finalists.

“Many search firms state that they can or will bring a more diverse candidate pool,” Wilde said via email. “If they don’t keep track of these data, how can they make such a statement?”

Wilde believes the process should be more transparent. She said schools can find qualified job candidates through open searches that require releasing the names of finalists.

“Why can’t we have a public review of presidents?” she asked. “They are the people who will be leading the next group of leaders.”

In Florida, which is considered to have the nation’s most transparent public records laws, state lawmakers recently debated a bill that wouldn’t disclose the names of finalists until 30 days before the last vote, but the public would never learn who else applied. The legislation was not approved after public debate.

Michael Poliakoff, president of the Washington-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has spoken and written in support of more open searches. The council is a nonprofit committed to, among other things, accountability within the nation’s colleges and universities.

“In Ángel Cabrera, they have a strong academic leader. They made a terrific choice,” Poliakoff said in a telephone interview. “But it’s a reminder that an opaque process is an opaque process.”

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