Louisiana taxpayers paid $8,132.50 for the Board of Regents to socialize with people who may or may not be interested in the $300,000-a-year job as the top college educator in the state.
Four people were flown into New Orleans on Sept. 17 and 18, at taxpayer expense, ferried across the street to the Hilton Hotel, then shuffled into a private conference room for “informal conversations.” The fifth participated by conference call.
Louisiana state law specifically requires applications for “public positions of authority” to be made public. But the Regents were just feeling these folks out, so it was best just to keep the whole thing quiet, the board’s leaders said. Regents released the names of three when they became applicants for the job.
Louisiana taxpayers popped $288 for catered lunches and another thousand for four Regents and five staffers to stay overnight an hour from their Baton Rouge office, according to records. The state charged $198 for refreshments, which was mostly for coffee.
In the big scheme of things, it’s not a lot of money, particularly given that they’re talking about filling the job of Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, who is in charge of a couple hundred thousand students. But it does show the cost of secrecy, which is germane in that more and more of these higher education searches are taking place behind closed doors at a time when tuition keeps going up.
Where once interviews with applicants were open to all, even streamed live on the Internet as happened at the University of Florida, now they’re held behind curtains with security guards to keep people away, as happened when picking the higher education commissioner in Mississippi.
LSU President & Chancellor F. King Alexander echoes what many administrators argue: The closed search process, in which candidates are promised confidentiality, encourages the very best candidates to put themselves forward. If word got out at home, that knowledge could undermine the executives’ ability to raise money, build partnerships in the community, attract top-flight faculty and all the other jobs expected these days of higher education leaders, he said.
Alexander’s own interviews for his $600,000-a-year job were kept secret until a couple days before the board voted to appoint him to run LSU.
Louisiana is not the only state where taxpayers aren’t allowed a say in who runs their public universities. Kentucky is looking for someone to run its community colleges and will do so behind closed doors. The University of Nebraska is holding its own secret president search, for which that state’s governor, David Heineman, is the leading contender. After a secret vetting at Florida State University, Michael Martin, the former LSU chancellor, was named as one of the finalists — along with John Thrasher, who is described in Florida as a powerful state senator.
In Indiana, the search committee members, most of whom were named by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, voted to give him the top job at Purdue University.
Even in Louisiana, universities provide a soft landing for political officials. To name two, Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s Commissioner of Administration, Jerry Luke LeBlanc, now works at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and Bob Mann, her communications director, now teaches at LSU.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and now a professor of public policy at the University of California-Berkeley, partly linked the increase of tuition each year to too many institutions having too many highly paid administrators. The article about Reich in U.S. News and World Report referenced an American Association of University Professors report from April that found median salaries for public university presidents rose by 75 percent from 2000 to 2010, while faculty salaries remained stagnant.
From 1978 to 2014, the number of administrators increased by 369 percent, while the number of full-time, tenure-track professors increased just 23 percent, according to the analysis.
Ironically, LSU’s Alexander published an essay in the same U.S. News & World Report criticizing universities for their “secret garden approach.” But he wasn’t talking about hiring secrecy.
No, Alexander argued that during this time of annually increasing tuition, universities need to disclose information, such as student indebtedness at graduation, that would help show the practical and social value of higher education. More transparency to demonstrate outcomes of graduates, less dependence on private rankings.
Maybe there should be more transparency in the hiring of administrators as well.