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Akst: Meet the new boss … or not

Today, four finalists for Northern Illinois University’s presidency will meet with NIU’s Board of Trustees at an undisclosed, off-campus location, according to a plan announced March 12 by NIU.

On Saturday, additional people will be able to interview finalists briefly and give feedback to the board.

NIU calls these other people “small groups of university stakeholders representing faculty, staff, alumni and foundation board members, as well as community leaders.”

Vagueness like that could choke a horse, and each stakeholder must sign a confidentiality agreement (the specifics of which we also don’t know).

This clandestine approach to finding a publicly paid steward of a publicly funded state university is necessary, we’re told, because closed searches are becoming the norm for attracting quality candidates.

“It’s becoming quite common for universities to have a closed search,” Paul Palian, director of media and public relations, told NIU’s student newspaper. Board Chairwoman Cherilyn G. Murer (as quoted in NIU’s online newsletter) agrees.

“In today’s marketplace,” she said, “a confidential search process that protects the identities of the candidates during the search itself is critical in attracting the best candidates during a presidential search.”

The board is heeding the advice of Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search in conducting a “closed, hybrid” presidential search. “Hybrid” seems to refer to the aforementioned university stakeholders, who will meet in secret and speak only to the board about their assessment.

So really, this is a closed search, unless the board authorizes an open forum so the larger NIU community could meet finalists. NIU Student Association Speaker James Zanayed said an open forum was “definitely a possibility.”

Initially, I was angry about this process. I’m not a big fan of secrecy, especially if the premise behind the secrecy is questionable. Also – my students know this well – trust is not my strongest personality trait.

Except Palian and Murer seem to be correct. Increasingly, universities are keeping presidential searches as secret as possible, largely for reasons Murer notes. If potentially excellent candidates are prematurely outed, those candidates might withdraw from the search and face punishment back home. The point of a search is to get the best candidate.

But typicality doesn’t equal appropriateness.

Equally disturbing is the fact that good university presidents are getting harder to find. Many are retiring, they don’t stay as long, provosts and deans are increasingly reluctant to apply for top jobs, and there’s a widespread sense that sitting presidents haven’t done enough to mentor successors.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities counted 109 presidential transitions among its 420 member institutions from April 2011 to August 2012, according to a January Chronicle of Higher Education article. Normally, the AASCU sees only about 40 new presidents among its members in a year.

So, my anger has become sorrow for the condition in which American postsecondary education – the envy of the world for centuries – finds itself.

Still, I can’t quite let go of my unease about the secrecy.

Illinois State University’s president is retiring, and ISU’s presidential search committee is planning an open forum for April, according to the Bloomington Pantagraph. Students and staff will have the opportunity to ask the school’s final candidates questions, said Jay Groves, ISU chief of staff.

NIU faces multiple, serious problems. In addition to those you’ve already heard about, Moody’s Investors Service on Monday downgraded NIU’s rating and revised its outlook to “negative.”

I believe NIU should provide at least minimal opportunity to meet presidential finalists. Generally, openness is better.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at

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