Say it ain’t so, Joe!

Posted: January 11th, 2010 | Author: benmcneely | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , , , , | View Comments

Vice Chancellor Snape is displeased.

First, as a card-carrying member of the N.C. State Alumni Association, I want to congratulate the new chancellor, William “Randy” Woodson, who came all the way from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., to lead this venerable institution.

I think he will make a fine leader and I hope he will be able to move N.C. State forward in its mission … and we can start winning at basketball again.

But this post isn’t about Chancellor-elect Woodson, or basketball. It’s about how the search to find him was handled. Chancellor searches in the UNC system are, basically, secret. The UNC Board of Governors believes that searches need to be secret to attract qualified candidates for top-level administrative positions.

The individual boards of trustees at the constituent universities interview candidates, send three names to UNC President Erskine Bowles and he nominates one to the governors. They vote on it, and voila, a chancellor is born.

All of this is done behind closed doors and the public never knows who the candidates or the three finalists are and never will, unless one of the candidates comes out and says, “Yes, I applied for the chancellor job at (insert N.C. public university name here).”

Because of the secrecy, media organizations are forced to scramble from one source to another and try to put the pieces together about who is being interviewed and who might be chosen to run a state university.

You would think the UNC System should search for its leaders in the open, or at least more in the open. After all, the UNC System gets about $3 billion (if not more, in good economic times), has 17 campuses across the state and educates about 220,000 students, most of them from North Carolina.

Then we get blog posts like this, from Joe Hice, chief communication officer for N.C. State:

This morning, it was the lead story in the (Raleigh) N&O (News & Observer)*. Only problem, neither the university nor the Board of Governors would confirmed the story…and won’t.

We won’t confirm the story because until the Board of Governor’s receives a chancellor recommendation from Erskine Bowles, and until the Board of Governors votes to accept that recommendation, and until the individual recommended and approved (if he or she is approved) accepts the BOG’s action, it’s not news. Really?  Really!

I know it’s hard to accept, but until it’s a done deal, it’s not a done deal.  You know, the fat-lady-sings thing.

* full name of the newspaper added

Never mind that he used a cliche (I’m sure his English teacher will scold him, but we won’t here), but he just said, in effect, “The announcement of the new chancellor isn’t news until we say it’s news.”

After some comments calling him out on this, Hice back-pedaled:

I didn’t mean to imply that the N&O hadn’t done their job or had done something wrong. They have four sources (thought I have never liked the anonymous types) and I think they were just doing their job. I was trying to point out the challenges we have on our side.

He came back and posted again, clarifying his position and explaining why he kept his PR team “on the farm” by telling them not to confirm or deny any questions about Woodson asked by journalists.

Now, as a head PR guy, I can’t blame Joe for sending out an e-mail telling his folks to keep their mouths shut. After all, they work for the state and have to follow the process, as Joe pointed out in his blog.

But it is news when a chancellor is named, and media organizations are going to get the name(s), one way or another. PR units just have to accept that, because someone is going to talk.

This situation is endemic of a larger problem in higher education. Journalists and PR reps perform this elaborate kabuki play, and everyone plays their part very well: PR reps push the accomplishments of their institution and hide any scandal their bosses might be mired in, and journalists bide their time by writing the “feel-good stories” while rooting around to find where the bodies are buried.

That may be a cynical view of things, but more often than not, that’s how things work.

The use of anonymous sources is a subplot in this kabuki show, now that public universities are being run more like private corporations. Even Joe doesn’t like anonymous sources:

I just have a problem when the best you can do is four unnamed sources.  Guess that’s better than one or two unnamed sources, but if the news is so important that you banner it across the top of the front page of the paper, shouldn’t you at least have one source who is willing to fess up?

Believe us, Joe. We don’t like using anonymous sources either. A story is more honest and credible when there is a name attached to it. But when you work in a culture where you, as CCO of a public university, send out e-mails to staff members to keep their mouth shut, you force journalists to use anonymous sources to get the story out.

By putting your team in an awkward position — keep your mouth shut or else — you contribute to a system that fosters mistrust and speculation.

Now yes, Joe, you will say, “But it’s not our story to tell, it is the UNC System’s story to tell.” Technically you are correct, but in a larger sense, Uncle Erskine and the Board of Governors are only supporting, but important, players in our kabuki show.

It is the N.C. State Board of Trustees that chooses the candidates. It is the trustees that force search committee members to sign a confidentiality agreement. It is the trustees that interview candidates and deliberate behind closed doors. All of this done with the blessing of the Board of Governors.

(On a side note, can you see Erskine Bowles in geisha make-up? Hilarious or scary? You be the judge.)

But the larger problem, with so much salary money in play and potential backlash from their current employers, is that potential academic leaders won’t apply for top positions if they know, at some point in the process, their names will be released to the public.

That last point is a total aberration in our republican (small r) system of government. Public officials, elected and appointed, go through a public screening process, whether it is through an election (for presidents, senators and other representatives, from the Congress all the way down to soil and water conservation districts) or through confirmation hearings (for Supreme Court justices and Cabinet secretaries).

Chancellors and presidents are the leaders of public universities. They control large bureaucracies and get to play with millions of public dollars and millions more from private donations. They also, often times, get paid more than most high-level public servants (Woodson’s starting salary: $420,000. Gov. Bev Perdue’s salary: $131,000).

So why don’t chancellor candidates go through the same public scrutiny that elected and appointed officials go through in other branches of government? At least the finalists for the job should be.

And in other states, they do. In Florida, where the sunshine laws are very strict, the names of the three finalists for the Florida State University presidency were released. Steve Leath, vice president for research for the UNC System and a prominent member of the Wolfpack Nation for a long time, was on that list. His application documents were posted on the Web for all to see.

The Florida State presidential search committee interviewed the three candidates in public. The interviews were even broadcast over the Internet and archived so the public could watch.  FSU eventually chose Eric J. Barron, director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and an alum.

And even James Oblinger, who stepped down as chancellor in May 2009 under intense scrutiny over the Mary Easley affair, applied and was one of five finalists for the top job at New Mexico State University. He didn’t get it, though. It went to Barbara Couture from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I wrote a chapter for an academic textbook edited by Oblinger and his wife, Diana, in 2005. I had little contact with them since I graduated in 2005 and none when Oblinger stepped down last year. You can read the textbook here.)

Any academic leader worth their salt should know, when they apply to be a chancellor or president, they are stepping into another ring of the public arena. Some thrive and work well under the pressure of media scrutiny, and some don’t.

N.C. State has a history of either reacting badly to news stories or just stonewalling the media altogether — to the detriment of their otherwise good reputation. This is what got North Carolina’s largest state university in trouble last spring when the N&O printed its story about former Gov. Mike Easley and his long history of ethically-questionable political patronage.

That’s why Oblinger and former Provost Larry Nielsen left — they couldn’t take the heat and stonewalled under pressure. Nielsen left with Oblinger trying to give him cover and his provost salary for three more years (against UNC system rules), and Oblinger left when Uncle Erskine caught him trying to bend the rules for Nielsen.

The process of selecting top university leadership in North Carolina is flawed, and it’s not because of the media or because of PR reps like Joe. It is the policy makers, who bow to artificial economic concerns, that make these very important decisions behind closed doors.

Until we can regain some trust between the public, the media and the university, this bad kabuki play will continue, to the critic’s horror.

And why not? It’s made a lot of money thus far.

Contributor Ben McNeely is an online content coordinator for Media General in Charlotte. He worked at Technician, N.C. State’s student newspaper, and WKNC 88.1 FM while attending N.C. State, and also reported on the search to replace former Chancellor Marye Anne Fox in 2004.

http://blogs.newsobserver.com/content/executive-privilege

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