UofL faculty members quietly protested the closed presidential search process at the Oct. 2 UofL board of trustees meeting. | Photo by Joe Sonka

A dozen University of Louisville faculty members held up signs of protest at the UofL board of trustees meeting last week, calling for the trustees to reverse their decision to hold a closed search for its new, permanent president. A week later, more faculty and administrators have joined that effort in letters to the trustees, including interim provost Dale Billingsley, four vice provosts and 12 deans.

At the Sept. 15 meeting of the trustees, chairman J. David Grissom announced that UofL’s search committee for a permanent president — made up of only the 13 trustees —  would keep the names of applicants and finalists confidential until one was ultimately hired. Grissom argued that this closed search would attract the strongest pool of applicants, as the kind of president they want “already has a really important job” and “is not going to risk their career by becoming a public figure during an interviewing process.”

This decision was immediately panned by members of the Presidential Search Faculty Consultation Committee (PSFCC) — a group of faculty formed in March under the Redbook policy guidelines for UofL, which the trustees are required to consult with when appointing a new president. In a detailed letter on Sept. 22 to the trustees, the PSFCC  expressed its “deep concern” with the decision to conduct a closed search, arguing that this would violate Redbook Section 2.1.1 on consultation with the committee.

In addition to their assertion that this kind of search would violate university policy, the PSFCC letter stated that “the risks of a closed search far outweigh the rewards,” as it would sacrifice transparency and accountability at a time when UofL desperately needs to restore trust, morale and its public image.

Noting that Grissom was only soliciting advice from unnamed national experts in higher education, the committee stated that “these failures repeat the rejection of transparency, consultation, cooperation and collaboration that plagued the administration under James Ramsey,” the former UofL president who was forced out of office last year.

Grissom replied to the PSFCC in a letter on Sept. 29, stating that while he appreciated the committee’s candid and thoughtful comments, he stood by the decision to keep the search process closed based on his discussions with “colleagues at other institutions and with a number of higher education search consultants.”

“Without exception, I have been advised that, in order to encourage the best candidates to consider UofL, we need to assure them from the start that the search will be conducted in confidence until its conclusion,” wrote Grissom. “I recognize that this may appear to be in conflict with academic tradition, but delivering the best possible president for our university should be our primary objective.”

UofL board of trustees chairman J. David Grissom (left) and interim president Greg Postel (right) | Photo by Joe Sonka

Grissom added that faculty, students and staff would not be prevented from input in the search process, as each constituency had a representative on the trustees, with these three amounting to “almost 25 percent” of the board. He added his promise that the “full Board listen to” the three representatives on the board, and encouraged the committee to participate in the “listening tour” that a six-member committee of trustees would conduct in the near future, to receive input from the campus community on what they wanted in a new president.

In a letter replying to Grissom and the trustees on Oct. 1, the PSFCC members wrote that the board chairman had failed to address the issues related to transparency and accountability in their initial letter, and was “effectively ignoring UofL’s past practices” and the Redbook policy.

“The PSFCC is disturbed that the weight and import of these institutional customs, procedures, and rules are being dismissed in favor of advice that Mr. Grissom has received in private consultation with unnamed sources,” stated the PSFCC letter.

The letter added that while the PSFCC shares many of the same goals with Grissom, “we will not acquiesce in the subordination of our collective voice,” closing with a request that Grissom “contact us as soon as possible so that we may discuss these urgent issues in person.”

The next day, a dozen faculty members silently protested the closed search process with signs in the trustees’ meeting, as Grissom updated the board on the progress of the two subcommittees handling the listening tour and drafting a leadership statement.

Susan Jarosi — a professor of arts history, the president of the UofL chapter of the American Association of University Professors and member of the PSFCC representing the College of Arts & Sciences — held a sign at the meeting that read “No Ramsey 2.0.” While the board was in closed session, she said that Grissom had not responded to the committee’s request to meet in person — reaffirming that status to IL a week later — adding that outside the faculty, student and staff representatives, “the board doesn’t seem to understand how important it is that they not be the only ones knowing what’s going on and participating in this selection.”

In the week following the Oct. 2 meeting, more groups have sent in letters to the trustees affirming the position of the PSFCC and requesting that the presidential search at least be opened once finalists are identified.

Later that same day, 19 faculty members of the Brandeis School of Law sent a letter to the trustees backing the PSFCC request to open up the final phase of the search, noting that “the recent financial, management, and athletic scandals have all happened in secret, demonstrating the dangers of lack of transparency.”

The law faculty wrote that because UofL “currently suffers from a budgetary and leadership crisis brought on by lack of transparency, opting for a process with a public final hiring phase better matches our University’s needs at this time,” adding that this is why the university needs to hire “a leader willing to publicly express in the position.”

A letter signed by the chair of all 21 departments in the College of Arts & Sciences was delivered on Oct. 3, in which they stated that a closed search would violate “both the letter and spirit” of the Redbook and “prevent the campus community from forming a relationship of trust with the incoming president, and thus it will impede the University from progressing out of a period of chaos and instability.”

Noting the “pervasive lack of transparency” in the Ramsey administration, the Arts & Sciences faculty stated that a closed search “look to us, our colleagues, and our students as more of the same.”

The same day, 22 members of the University Libraries faculty wrote to the trustees strongly urging them to reconsider the closed search, which “undermines the trust of our faculty, staff and students.”

“With this decision, the Board of Trustees appears to demonstrate more concern for the sensibilities and careers of potential candidates than for the faculty and staff struggling to maintain morale and move our university forward,” wrote the library faculty. “We question whether a candidate who comes to this position requiring such protection can be effective, restore confidence, and inspire our institution.”

On Oct. 4, eight administrators of the Kent School of Social Work sent a letter to the trustees, expressing their “deep concern” about the closed search, adding that the points made by the PSFCC “could not be more important given the current climate at and perceptions of” UofL due its many scandals over the past two years.

The UofL Faculty Senate also voted to approve a letter to the trustees at its Oct. 4 meeting, which stated that they were “thoroughly opposed” to a closed search for finalists, as limiting the input of faculty and other constituencies “will damage the efforts to cultivate greater transparency, undermine the importance of shared governance, and negatively impact the future working relationship and trust between the faculty and senior leadership.”

On Friday of last week, some of the top administrators at UofL joined in — including UofL’s interim provost Dale Billingsley — sending a letter to the trustees hoping to convince them “to reconsider the decision to close the search entirely because it is important for the campus community to hear from the three or four finalists regarding the vision and talents each would bring to the position.”

In addition to Billingsley, this letter to the trustees was signed by four vice provosts and 12 deans — the large majority of those at the university.

The letter of deans and vice provosts further stated that while they share the goal of obtaining the strongest pool of candidates possible, “we are not optimistic that the very best candidates will apply without the opportunity for them to actually meet with faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community leaders to gauge for themselves how we work to meet our mission.”

The letter went on to express hope that the trustees accepted the advice of the “administrators with a lot of academic search experiences,” noting that UofL “needs to move beyond the secret deals that led to many of our current financial, ethical, and administrative problems.”

UofL spokesman John Karman has stated in the past that Grissom generally does not answer any question from the media unless they are asked at the close of a trustees’ meeting. The next meeting of the trustees is scheduled for next Wednesday, Oct. 18.

Trustee Bonita Black, who chairs the listening tour committee, said at the Oct. 2 meeting that committee would meet on Oct. 9 to set dates for that tour and receive input on what the campus community wants from a new president. However, that committee did not meet on Monday, and has yet to schedule a meeting for this week.

UofL’s interim President Greg Postel — who took over when the previous interim president Neville Pinto left in January to lead the University of Cincinnati — has stated that he is “very much” interested in the permanent position. At the Sept. 15 meeting of the trustees, Postel declined to weigh in on the closed search, as he will be one of the applicants for the job.

The letter from the UofL provosts and deans can be read below:

[scribd id=361148284 key=key-sDXDfubHmQ2vdq659Yai mode=scroll]

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]


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