Columns » Max Brantley

Two ways to search

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Arkansas last week saw two different approaches to filling top jobs in the state's higher education system.

An Arkansas Times Freedom of Information request for e-mails between members of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees unearthed several details about the UA's search for a system president to succeed the retiring B. Alan Sugg.

For one thing, we learned that Brady Deaton, the chancellor of the University of Missouri, was extensively courted for the position before withdrawing from consideration March 28.

For another, we learned that trustee John Ed Anthony had arranged a series of one-on-one meetings with several trustees to discuss the presidency search.

The one-on-one board meetings are intended to shield the search from public exposure. A consultant hired with private money had been suggesting candidates to Anthony, who did initial inquiries. None actually applied for the job, because applications are open to public inspection. If Anthony found someone promising, visits to Little Rock and Fayetteville were arranged at which trustees could meet singly or in pairs with a candidate.

The idea, it appears, was to arrive by secretive means at a consensus candidate. Bad weather, Deaton's dropout and a division on the board over a potential in-state candidate, former UA trustee Stanley Reed of Marianna, slowed the process. Anthony's board term ended. Dr. Carl Johnson, the new board chairman, took over search leadership. He favors openness — public applications and interviews.

The higher up the corporate ladder you go, the less enthusiasm you find for sunshine. Anthony, who heads a huge forest products business, told me, "I can't emphasize again how difficult it is to get sitting presidents or sitting chancellors in major universities to be willing to expose themselves to scrutiny necessary to get this job."

However you feel about that, the UA's notion that two trustees can confer in private on public business without notice to the press is a shocking interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act. John Tull, the Arkansas Press Association's attorney, believes such meetings are illegal when intentionally undertaken to keep a public decision-making process secret.

Legal or not, the UA process isn't unusual. Public boards all over Arkansas communicate by phone, e-mail and in other ways to reach decisions ratified in public as a mere formality.

By contrast last week, we had news about the Henderson State University search for a new president. I learned that Sen. Gilbert Baker, a retired college music teacher and Joint Budget Committee leader whose legislative work included an amendment to a regulatory board budget bill to direct $100,000 a year in excess money to Henderson State, came with an interesting reference. It was from a lobbyist for billionaires (potential college patrons, you'd think) to whom Baker's vote was critical in committee approval of their charter school legislation. His application and references were known because the Henderson process is open. All candidates are asked to submit applications. All applications are open to the public.

This doesn't necessarily mean that politics aren't a factor. Baker said he was "invited" to apply by a member of the board of trustees, Anita Cabe, a Republican who contributed to Baker's unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate.

Even with open applications, there's nothing to prevent a well-connected candidate from making use of those connections to be the singular survivor of a screening process. At Henderson, however, the word at press time was that Baker would not be advancing to the final round of interviews, though a couple of in-state candidates would be.

Henderson's openness is the better model.

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