UNH's Confidential President Search Part of Growing National Trend

Mar 6, 2018

Credit Ryan Lessard for NHPR

The University of New Hampshire announced last week it has selected finalists in its search for a new president, but the list of candidates will be kept private.

This has prompted leaders of the Seacoast NAACP and the ACLU of New Hampshire to demand more transparency in the search for a new president. But confidential searches have now become common among universities across the country.

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Eric Kelderman, a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, about the growing trend.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

UNH released a statement last week saying by respecting the confidentiality of the candidates, that they've been able to attract candidates who would not otherwise participate in the search. Is this a common reason why these searches are now kept private?

That's one of many reasons. A lot of the proponents of this practice say that if you keep it confidential, then folks can engage in the process without letting their home institution know that they're participating. They feel like maybe they don't want to poison the well in the place where they're working. And then if they don't get that job, then they have to go back to a place where maybe people think you really don't want to be here, etc.


So that's one of the many reasons why they do it. But it has become very common, and there are a number of reasons why folks are very concerned about it.

Yeah, and UNH says this is now standard to keep that list confidential. Why is that? What are the other benefits for the university itself?

I think the university might argue again that the quality and the breadth of the candidate pool might be more diverse. They might be able to consider people who might not otherwise participate. You know, I think the downsides are also well documented. There's a high cost in hiring a search firm. And then there's the privacy not only of the candidates, but of the process itself, which is kept secret by the search firm.

So how does this affect transparency—either perceived or actual transparency?

Well I think one of the big effects is that you know all the documentation, and minutes, notes and things that go on, that take place at the search firm, are not usually subject to public records law. So when the search firm is done, you can't go back and say well let's see how the process worked. Was it really fair and open? Was there really a broad dialogue about who would participate in the search, and how were they chosen? You can't get most of that documentation after it's done, because the search firm is a private company. It's not a public university. So that's one of the big costs. You also don't necessarily know all of the financial details that went into this. Sometimes you can get the contract with the search firm. That's very helpful in many cases, but you don't necessarily know if the search firm carried out all of the processes that it was contracted to do.

How many universities keep their lists private compared to universities who are still conducting open searches?

It's probably at this point well over three-quarters I think of the searches, according to some research that we've seen.

And has that shift just happened in recent years?

I would say you know over the past, let's say a decade or so since I've been at The Chronicle, I think that's become a very common process. It used to be more open where you would have a slate of candidates that would come. And even for the finalists to be secret, that's very unusual. Typically what happens with the finalists is they'll come and they'll have a day on campus, and they'll meet with folks. Once you get down to sort of your final say three or four folks.

So it is still unusual that UNH would have their finalists—kind of a private list with that?

Yeah, that is very unusual actually. And that I think, on other campuses that gets a lot of people concerned, because you really don't know what you're getting at all. You don't have any input into the process. Faculty and students and staff who typically have a role to some degree in helping select the president, either by being on the search committee or by weighing in during maybe public forums, that have absolutely no voice in the process.

There have been concerns of racial bias on UNH's campus within the past year, and the NAACP and ACLU are saying this specifically means there should be a more transparent search here. So how have other universities that have been in similar situations handled their presidential searches?

That is actually one of the reasons that argument's perhaps in favor of the search firm and the privacy, which is that the search firm typically touts we have connections nationwide. We can reach out to a diverse pool. If we're not out there sort of pounding the pavement for candidates, you might not get a diverse slate of resumes to consider—people of color, women and other minorities that might be in the pool. So that is actually one possible argument in favor of the privacy and using a private firm.

And the counter argument would be?

Well, I mean you don't really know of course until it's all done, right? And by then it's too late. You know, you've signed a contract and whoever's president is president, and you don't really know. Was there a really diverse group of candidates considered, and how were they considered? Things like that.