The UofL board of trustees’ Listening Tour Subcommittee on Monday discussed possible changes to the presidential search process to suggest to the full board. | Photo by Joe Sonka

The University of Louisville board of trustees at its meeting Thursday afternoon is expected to discuss potential changes to its closed presidential search process, following a subcommittee meeting on Monday in which several options to open up the process were debated.

Trustees’ chairman J. David Grissom has adamantly defend the closed search process — in which the names of all applicants and finalists will be confidential and known only by the trustees until they select a new president — arguing that an open search would prevent the most qualified candidates from applying.

A large number of faculty have protested that process and called for finalists’ names to be made public and invited to meet campus constituents, saying a closed process stunts the effort to regain trust in UofL’s post-James Ramsey era.

At the trustees’ Listening Tour Subcommittee meeting on Monday, chairwoman Bonita Black brought up several potential changes to the search process that might address the concerns of faculty and students — calling it a “hybrid” between a closed and open search — which could then be adopted by the full board.

First, Black suggested that for the “airport interviews” of the roughly three finalists, the committee interviewing these candidates should be expanded beyond just the 13 trustees, but include eight more representatives from the campus — two students, two faculty, two staff and two deans.

She also brought up the possibility of adding language to invite the finalists to meet with constituents on campus, suggesting they would improve their chances of being hired if they did so, but stopping short of requiring that.

Black told the committee — and members of the Presidential Search Faculty Consultation Committee (PSFCC) in attendance, who have called for finalists’ names to be public — that if finalists “really want to be the president,” they will meet with the community. However, she added that “I personally will have question marks in my mind about a candidate that does not come in.”

Susan Jarosi, a professor of arts history, the president of the UofL chapter of the American Association of University Professors and co-chair of the PSFCC representing the College of Arts & Sciences, told Black that while adding eight members to the finalist interviews is a positive step, that step would not make it an “open search” and it was not a substitute for requiring campus visits, which the PSFCC views as “absolutely essential.”

Rachel Howard, a University Libraries professor and PFSCC member, said the mere invite and suggestion for finalists to visit campus is insufficient. She offered a hypothetical example of two finalists visiting campus but the trustees hiring a third finalist who did not and remained a “secret candidate,” saying it would further damage morale and trust on campus.

“People will really have the perception that is was rigged all along, if for whatever reason the board goes with door No. 3 and we only opened 1 and 2,” said Howard.

Vishnu Tirumala, the student representative on the board of trustees, said that trustees would weigh whether or not such finalists visited campus when making their decision who to hire. “If they don’t come in, I’d at least be curious why, and if they could share that privately,” Tirumala said.

Trustee Ronald Wright added that “it says volumes to me that someone would choose not to come here and meet with the people they’re planning to lead into the future.”

“I think as a group most of us would feel that way as well,” Wright said. “We’d be very hesitant about such a candidate, but that’s the risk that they run.”

While adding that she would personally counsel finalist to visit the campus, Black remained steadfast that such a visit — which would reveal the finalist’s identity — should not be required, as the trustees would be “putting up a wall for some candidates who will just say I better not get involved, because Louisville has a lot of stuff going on right now and I don’t know that I want the world to know I’m trying to go there and fix that mess.”

Trustee James Rogers suggested that faculty concerned about the closed search make a “leap of faith” in trusting the trustees to make the right decision, saying that neither side is going to get exactly what they want and hiring the best candidate is the most important outcome.

He added that each of the presidential search consultants interviewed by UofL said that an open search would fail to find the best candidate, and the eight members added to finalist interviews was a proper compromise, as “you can’t have 78 people on a search committee, or 100 people on a search committee.”

Jarosi countered Rogers request of faith by noting that the trustees chose their closed search process without soliciting any input from faculty and campus constituents.

Black said that she would draft edits to the search protocol prepared by their presidential search consultant William Funk, and the full board of trustees would discuss such changes on Thursday.

After the meeting, Jarosi told IL that the PFSCC would welcome adding eight members to the finalist interviews, “but it’s not a substitute for required campus visits and that does not make it an open search.”

“It’s too early to say what optional campus visits will result in,” said Jarosi. “Optional could mean two of them come, optional could mean none of them come. It would be nice to have certainty.”

The deadline for presidential applicants is in February and there is not set date for when interviews will start next year.

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Joe Sonka
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]