Our Views: Open up top search

We’re disappointed, but not surprised, that LSU officials are insisting upon keeping taxpayers in the dark about their search for a new university system president.

The stakes for LSU could not be higher in its search for a new leader. Yet the biggest stakeholder in this endeavor — the public that the university is meant to serve — is being left out of the loop as this important decision is being made.

The members of the LSU Board of Supervisors, who approved this secretive process, should be ashamed of themselves.

Essentially, the board has outsourced its responsibility for finding a new leader to a private search firm paid by the nonprofit LSU Foundation, a gimmick clearly designed to create a rationale for shielding the names of presidential applicants from public view.

Recently, LSU officials rejected a public records request from The Advocate for the names of candidates being considered for system president position. After funneling documents related to the search through a private search firm, LSU officials argued that they have no application documents to share regarding candidates for the top post. Members of a search committee seeking a new system president said earlier this month that they were considering 30 candidates for the position.

We disagree with the legal arguments that LSU officials have made in shielding the names of people being considered for the LSU system presidency. But beyond such legal questions, there’s a broader moral imperative. LSU officials are supposed to work for the taxpayers who, in large part, fund the university. This is a public university, not a private fiefdom, and citizens deserve to know the names, qualifications and backgrounds of those people being considered to lead LSU.

We find the arguments for such secrecy unpersuasive. Secrecy in searches for top university posts is necessary, LSU officials have said, in order to attract the best candidates. If the names of candidates are made public early in the process, say LSU officials, then good candidates would be discouraged from applying because they fear angering their existing employers. But administrators who have good relationships with their present employers have nothing to fear in considering other jobs. In fact, being considered for another job often helps popular university leaders secure pay raises and additional benefits from their existing employers.

LSU and the public have much more to lose when searches for top jobs are secretive. Consider what some recent secretive searches have yielded. LSU officials are now looking for a new president because the LSU board fired John Lombardi, who was known for his combative style.

The public had almost no time to consider Lombardi’s qualifications and character before he came to LSU, since he was fast-tracked for the job after a secretive search that afforded little public input. Lombardi’s prickly reputation could have been a useful topic for discussion if the search that led to his appointment had been more transparent.

An equally secretive search for LSU’s chancellor yielded Sean O’Keefe several years ago, and again, the public had no time to scrutinize his management style before he was appointed. O’Keefe later left his position amid questions about his management methods.

Such experiences don’t support the argument that secretive searches yield the best candidates for top university positions. In fact, when searches are conducted in secrecy, the public has no assurance that the best candidate was selected for the job.

Nor can LSU officials argue that secretive searches for top managers are an inevitable fact of university life. Recently, other college systems in Louisiana have been much more open in searches for top administrators. There’s no evidence that this openness compromised the process.

In fact, openness helps build public confidence in public institutions. How can LSU officials expect taxpayers to help fund LSU’s operations when they treat the public as an afterthought?