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UNC system should conduct public chancellor searches

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Members of the UNC Board of Governors chat before a meeting is convened at East Carolina University in 2015.

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Saturday, August 18, 2018

In Tom Fetzer’s defense of his recent actions as a member of the UNC Board of Governors, he was right about one matter: Secrecy is not paramount in the search for a new chancellor at one of our state universities.

Fetzer, in a column published by The News & Observer, defended his involvement in the search for a new chancellor at Western Carolina University. In our view, his actions were meddlesome and indicative of the larger problem of some board members being too involved in campus matters. We agreed with some current and former board members that Fetzer’s handling of the matter did not represent good board governance.

But we agree with an important point Fetzer made involving the misplaced and almost obsessive desire for secrecy when searching for the leader of one of our state universities. Fetzer noted that UNC President Margaret Spellings had been quoted recently as saying, “Confidentiality is paramount in the search process.”

“Respectfully, she’s wrong,” Fetzer wrote. What is paramount, Fetzer wrote, is abiding by the board’s oversight responsibility and hiring the best chancellor possible. He is right about that.

Fetzer appears to be right about another point: The vetting process for at least one of the Western Carolina chancellor candidates didn’t work. Fetzer wrote that UNC officials and its search firms “failed to notice a glaring misrepresentation on page 1 of the candidate’s application.”

There’s a simple fix to that problem, and it would solve other issues UNC has when hiring chancellors. That’s to publicly name two or three finalists and bring them to campus to meet with students, faculty, staff and members of the university community.

This has been done at times in the UNC system and it’s been effective. There’s no better way to check the qualifications of a candidate than to post the candidate’s name and resume online. That UNC hasn’t embraced the digital power of crowdsourcing shows it’s stuck in another era.

There are other benefits in naming finalists and bringing them to campus. The candidate ultimately selected has a chance to get buy-in and support from the university community. This lack of prior interaction with the university community has hurt ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton, who has struggled to win the support of stakeholders. That process went so poorly that the search firm returned its $110,000 fee.

Naming finalists is a prudent way to manage risk. And it’s effective. That’s why Wake commissioners announced finalists in choosing their county manager this year and why Raleigh and Durham named finalists in selecting their current police chiefs. Yes, some possible candidates might not be willing to be named. But the benefits of naming finalists outweighs the costs.

In his column, Fetzer took the news media to task for being hypocritical: “The same news media that have wrongly accused me of jeopardizing candidate confidentiality often make it their mission to disclose finalists — and vet them independently — before any hiring.”

But in criticizing Fetzer’s handling of the Western Carolina incident, The N&O did not criticize him for jeopardizing candidate confidentiality (although we did quote a board member who made that point). In fact, The N&O has longed pushed for finalists for high-level public jobs in the UNC system and elsewhere to be named.

We’d like to support Fetzer on this issue. We hope that he will vigorously make the case to the UNC board that finalists for all chancellor jobs be named publicly and that the candidates visit the campus to discuss their qualifications and ideas. If the board is serious about improving its search process, it would support naming finalists.

The Raleigh News & Observer

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