Secrecy in Missouri presidential search easier said than done

Monday, December 31, 2007
Gary Forsee

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- After nearly a year of work, University of Missouri curators were visibly excited when they gathered on campus just before Christmas to announce their selection of a new president.

There was just one problem: Gary Forsee's hiring was old news.

Newspapers, radio and TV stations in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia, along with The Associated Press, had relied on confidential sources and reported a day earlier Forsee's imminent hiring. Forsee, the former chief executive officer of Sprint/Nextel Corp., graduated from Central High School in 1968.

Forsee's interest in the job was documented even sooner when Gov. Matt Blunt's office acknowledged in mid-November that the career businessman ventured to the Capitol to discuss the presidency. That disclosure came six months after the Columbia Daily Tribune first reported a possible Forsee candidacy.

For a supposedly confidential search, it seems that plenty of insiders couldn't help but chatter away.

"Somehow the word got out," Forsee said at the Dec. 20 announcement, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "I can't imagine how that happens around here."

In the one year since former president Elson Floyd departed for Washington State University, curators consistently said they chose a confidential search to attract candidates -- whether in academia, politics or business -- who didn't want to jeopardize their existing jobs by letting word leak of their interest.

That contrasts the approach taken by some colleges and universities that bring a handful of finalists to campus for public interviews with students, professors and other community members.

Such early exposure to potential chancellors and presidents, the thinking goes, lends greater credibility to the search process and allows for public scrutiny and input into the eventual selection.

At public universities, that insight extends to taxpayers who help foot the new leader's salary, argue the proponents of open searches.

"The university's secret searches serve no one, save the vested interests and highly paid search consultants, who run a closed-loop process dominated by a chosen few," said Charles Davis, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, which advocates for less secrecy in government.

"It's a betrayal of the public trust and a mockery of the openness a university ought to stand for."

Since Missouri's search officially began in April, at least seven other public universities -- including Iowa, West Virginia and Indiana State -- trotted out a group of presidential finalists to the masses. Some of those public sessions stretched over several days.

At Indiana State, trustees initially planned a closed search but changed course after faculty protests.

Knowing the finalists' identities could also allow campus constituents to better understand the selection criteria, Davis said, including whether any women or minorities were in the mix -- or in Missouri's case, whether any finalists had a more traditional academic background.

"We'll never know," he said. "Searches all over the country have become increasingly transparent, even as Mizzou races in the opposite direction."

Some Missouri curators acknowledge the benefit of public presidential searches. They just don't think such a process could work here.

"There are pros and cons for going public," said curator Marion Cairns. "Some of our candidates would not have come if it had been open. They didn't want their employers to know they were looking."

For Cairns, the search process worked "fine" -- excluding Rep. Kenny Hulshof's public acknowledgment in June that he was among three finalists for a job he ultimately would not get.

The curators' first choice, New Jersey businessman Terry Sutter, rejected the job. That forced the board to start from scratch with a new search that culminated in Forsee's hiring.

During that first round of interviews, Forsee remained in charge at Sprint Nextel. But by October, he suddenly found himself on the job market after resigning under pressure from shareholders and board members at the nation's third-largest wireless carrier.

Forsee was ousted as chairman, president and CEO of the company, whose stock and customer base had plummeted since the 2005 merger of Sprint and Nextel. He received an estimated $55 million severance.

Forsee, a 1972 graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, starts work at the university in mid-February.

He did not return a telephone call to his Kansas City home seeking comment and declined an interview request through university spokesman Scott Charton, who said the incoming president is "focused on the future, not the past and the process."

Knowingly or not, Forsee may have contributed to the widespread knowledge of his potential hire. At his campus introduction, the school's 22nd president said he consulted a Who's Who of Missouri political leaders about the job, including Blunt, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, Attorney General Jay Nixon, state Rep. Rod Jetton, state Sen. Gary Nodler and Missouri's two U.S. senators, Kit Bond and Claire McCaskill.

Others conveyed their own well-wishes ahead of the official announcement, Forsee said.

"I appreciate the many expressions of support that I've received regarding this new role," he said. "There have been phone calls, e-mails and personal conversations that have all been most encouraging."

While the names of Forsee, Sutter and Hulshof each emerged during the board's supposed secret interviews, it wasn't for lack of trying to keep those in the know quiet.

Members of a 19-member presidential search advisory committee had to sign confidentiality agreements vowing to "not divulge any information regarding the identities of prospective candidates for the University of Missouri presidency to anyone at any time," both during and even after the search's conclusion.

Whether that one-paragraph statement carried the weight of law or was merely a good faith gesture is largely a moot point now.

But for at least some of those with knowledge of the search process, learning the name of the next University of Missouri president -- and sharing that name with outsiders -- was a secret too compelling to keep.

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