Western has yet to decide whether interview sessions will be open or closed during the evaluation process of presidential candidates, which could have implications on the opportunity for student feedback in the search process.
According to a university press release, Western is currently in the process of recruiting candidates for the position. The Presidential Search Advisory Committee (PSAC) is reviewing applications to determine which candidates they would like to meet in the upcoming evaluation phase.
However, the Board of Trustees has not yet decided whether or not finalist interviews will be open or closed, said Paul Cocke, director of the university communications and marketing office, in an email.
“On the one hand, an open search allows the campus to meet the final candidates and see for themselves whether they’re the right fit for Western,” Cocke said in an email. “On the other hand, many of the very best candidates in the country are sitting presidents (presidents at other universities), who will not compromise their position back home by making a public appearance at another campus. That has the effect of discouraging some of the best candidates from even applying.”
In June 2015, President Bruce Shepard announced he would be retiring at the end of the academic school year. Since then, Western has been busy searching for someone to take his place.
On July 20, the board of trustees initiated the search by appointing Sue Sharpe as chair of the PSAC. The committee was to be made up of three trustees, three faculty members, two students, one professional staff, one classified staff, an academic administrator, and two community members, with up to two additional spots to be opened at the board’s discretion.
To gather feedback before beginning the interview process, Western also received feedback from 645 people via an online survey, 130 of which were students.
The PSAC hosted community forums during fall quarter.
These meetings allowed students and staff to express what they thought Western’s strengths are and what the university should focus on improving in the next five years. This feedback was used to shape the search parameters for presidential candidates.
However, only one student, senior Galen Herz, attended the initial community forum hosted specifically for students.
“I think [the low attendance] reflects that students feel disillusioned and disconnected from university governance and that’s because we have such little voice,” Herz said.
Another forum was organized to give more students a chance to give feedback, which about 15 students attended.
“We realized that when we did the first student forum and had such low attendance, we probably weren’t approaching it in the right way,” Sue Sharpe, PSAC chair and Western trustee, told the Western Front in an article on November 6, 2015.
Closed vs. open interviews
Open interviews would allow students to hear directly from candidates about their qualifications, previous job experience and goals for Western as a university. With an open search process, students would also know who the presidential candidates are, which could allow for greater feedback when the board of trustees decides between the finalists.
In a closed interview setting, the names and qualifications of presidential candidates would not be released. The PSAC and the board of trustees would be the only people to meet potential candidates before the campus is introduced to its new president in late March or early April.
This could drastically reduce student feedback in the final stages of the process because of the PSAC’s structure.
Of those currently on the PSAC, only one is an undergraduate student. Two members are graduate students.
Four other members are sitting trustees, who, in addition to conducting preliminary interviews as part of the PSAC, will also be conducting separate interviews and making the final decision as to who will be the next president.
This means that if the interview process is closed, only one student will have knowledge on the presidential candidates and be representing more than 14,500 undergraduates enrolled at Western.
“I honestly do think that’s a valid reason; I think that’s just how hiring works. What isn’t valid is the fact that there is only one student on the search committee,” Herz said.
Other students have faith in the judgement of the board.
“Having at least one student there is necessary, but it all comes down to the board of trustees,” Evan Matz said. “They have the biggest [say] in who becomes president or not, which I think is rightfully so, being that they’re the ones investing in who is running the school.”
What other universities are doing
Universities around the nation have used both interview methods in their own presidential searches.
The University of North Dakota is also currently in the process of a presidential search. UND released the names and qualifications of their finalists as well as excerpts from their interviews.
University of Michigan completed their presidential search in January 2014. The process was conducted completely in private.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misquoted university Communications and Marketing Office director Paul Cocke. Neither he, the PSAC committee, nor the Board of Trustees have indicated that the interviews are more likely to be closed than open.