USM’s search narrowed to four finalists, but process upsets some

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The search for the next president of the University of Southern Maine may soon be over.

Four finalists have visited the school in recent weeks or will do so next week.

But the university’s research process has left some members of the USM community unsatisfied.

Faculty and students said they felt the school had reduced opportunities to participate in executive searches by making the process confidential until the eleventh hour, eroding already depleted trust in the administration of the system. the University of Maine.

“Many people at USM were shocked by the relative lack of transparency in hiring people for senior administrative positions,” said Wendy Chapkis, a 25-year professor and chair of the women’s studies and Gender and Sociology from USM.

James Erwin, system administrator and chair of the search committee, said the panel made only very small changes to the search process from previous searches and that this level of secrecy was necessary to attract high-quality candidates. quality who might be worried about retaliation. if their current employers discover that they are in the running for a new position.

“We want research to be successful and we don’t want any barriers to that,” he said.

The shift to a less transparent research process at USM is part of a nationwide trend that experts have linked to the increased use of private research companies. And it follows a series of issues that have heightened tensions between USM faculty and the UMaine system administration, including the announced departure of outgoing President Glenn Cummings and a failed bill – opposed by Governor Janet Mills – to allow faculty to join the UMaine System Board of Directors. trustees.

The original timeline for the search called for UMaine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy to publicly announce his decision in mid-April. After all of the final applicants have visited the campus, the search committee will deliberate and choose three applicants from which Malloy can choose. USM is one of eight colleges in the UMaine system.

While the search committee would not release the names of the four finalists, the Press Herald obtained their resumes from faculty members.

The four finalists work as administrators of colleges or universities in other states. They are Timothy Pinnow of Colorado Mesa University, Jennifer Orlikoff of Potomac State College, part of the West Virginia University System., Karin Ismaili of Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and Jacqueline Edmondson of Penn State Greater Allegheny in Pennsylvania.

The Press Herald contacted the four finalists on Friday. Three were not immediately available to speak and one declined to comment, citing a USM request not to speak about the research.

In previous searches, finalists’ names and community forum schedules were released simultaneously a few weeks before they arrived on campus. The process has changed for the current search and the names of the candidates have been communicated one by one to the USM community 48 hours before their respective arrival.

Erwin said that was the policy of Academic Search, the company the school hired to find the next president at a cost of $77,500.

Academic Search officials could not be reached to discuss the search, but the contract between Academic Search and the UMaine system states that applicant information must be kept confidential.

The UMaine system has used outside consultants in previous presidential searches, including the one that resulted in the hiring of Cummings. But each recruiting firm has its own policies and recommendations.

A thing that is somehow odd about these companies is that they are very keen on keeping the identities of individual applicants as secret as possible,” said Shelton Waldrep, professor of English and president of the faculty senate.

“Professors don’t get much notice before a candidate shows up on campus and it can be difficult to arrange a time in your day, as everyone is very busy, to follow the presentation and interact with the candidate,” Waldrep said.

Waldrep said the process has left professors wondering why they can’t get the full list of applicants and their schedules, and why they don’t have more time to think about their reactions to applicants and complete the surveys. After the presentations of the candidates, the professors have a few days to answer the inquiries concerning them.

But Waldrep also said he believed the school and search committee were acting in good faith and working the best way they knew how to find a good candidate. “We had access to the candidates and we are able to ask them questions,” he said.

Unlike previous searches, candidate names are only made available to members of the USM community – students, staff, faculty, and alumni – through USM’s password-protected portal, MyUSM. In the past, the names of candidates were announced publicly and sometimes even to the media, as some professors believe it should be.

“Taxpayers are paying to have a system of universities in the state of Maine and the public should be aware of major hires,” Chapkis said. “I understand that they care about protecting the people they interview, but at what cost?”

But Erwin said applicants urge that their names be kept as confidential as possible and said the school even asked applicants to withdraw from the search process when they found out there would be a finalist process. open.

Riley Mayes, a suburban junior student, said the process was confusing and frustrating and she didn’t think she had much information about how applicants were screened and considered.

“I’ve spoken to people on the search committee and it’s very closed doors,” she said. “I wish I could play a more collaborative role in decision-making as a student, as a student from the suburbs, and as someone who values ​​my time at USM.”

Nationally, the searches of school administrative officials have become more secretive over the past decade, according to Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. . Wilde has studied changes in higher education executive searches.

Wilde said higher education institutes are increasingly using search firms and many companies encourage confidential search processes, despite a lack of research showing that confidentiality yields better candidates.

In March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill protecting presidential searches of state colleges and universities from public records law. In the past, candidate names were available throughout the search process. Now, they will only be available once an institution has chosen three finalists. Nebraska, Wisconsin and Tennessee have passed similar laws over the past decade.

But a Maine lawmaker wants the state to go in the opposite direction.

Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, last year introduced a bill to create more transparent research processes for UMaine system employees by prohibiting anyone involved in the research process from signing a research agreement. non-disclosure, among others. The bill failed, but Collings said he still believed the university system should use a more open research process.

This seems like a strange way for a institution with public finances to conduct itself and I think you can have a more transparent and inclusive process that still attracts great candidates,” Collings said. “I’m more concerned about faculty, students, and the USM community than I am about applicants’ concerns.”


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