AAUP pushes for “open search” process for new college president

Rosa Woolsey, Staff Reporter

The Board of Trustees will soon begin their search for a successor to President Kathy Murray, who announced that she would be retiring from Whitman after the 2021-2022 school year.

Arielle Cooley, President of the Whitman chapter of the American Association of College Professors (AAUP), explained that President Murray’s hiring in 2015 was the first closed search in Whitman’s history. 

“[The move to closed searches] has been a trend in higher education over the past decade, [but] there are schools that are very successfully continuing to do open searches,” Cooley said. 

The national AAUP recommends that colleges and universities engage in open searches as an affirmation of their commitment to transparency and shared governance.

Jack Percival 16’ served as ASWC President in the 2015-2016 school year and was one of two student representatives on Whitman’s last Presidential Selection Committee. He described the composition of the group. 

“There were two student representatives, two staff representatives and four faculty representatives. The faculty were elected from each of the three divisions and the Chair of the Faculty. The rest of the committee was comprised of trustees and [members of the President’s Advisory Board]… By and large, the trustees and [members of the President’s Advisory Board] that participated in the process were alumni,” Percival said. “So, every major constituency at Whitman had a representative in the process.”

In a previous conversation with The Wire, Board Chair Nancy Serrurier explained that this hiring committee is responsible for working with a consulting firm to find candidates that fit the proposed criteria for the position.

“The board makes the [ultimate] decision, and it’s the committee’s job to work with a consultant to identify candidates, to talk to the candidates and interview them and to read all the reference materials and everything involved with it,” Serrurier said. “In the past, anybody could make recommendations for [candidates] to be considered, but the reality is that it’s usually the consultant who knows people in the field who are appropriately qualified.” 

Percival explained that the confidentiality of a closed search allows for a more diverse pool of applicants. Some applicants may not want their current employer to know that they are inquiring about another job, because that may negatively impact the relationships they have in their current position. Moreover, an open search may impede applicants’ ability to participate in other future presidential searches if it were widely known that they were not selected in Whitman’s search.

“The closed search was in an effort to attract the best possible applicant pool while also protecting their identity and making sure they felt comfortable participating in the process,” Percival said.

Percival reflected on his own experience as a student representative on the selection committee.

“In my opinion, the process was as inclusive and as transparent as it could’ve been while still attracting the best possible applicant pool,” Percival said. “Nancy [Serrurier] and Janice [Abraham], who were the co-chairs of the committee, were very clear that every single person in that room was a full participating member of the committee.” 

The hiring committee provided numerous opportunities for the entire Whitman community to provide feedback through a number of avenues, including surveys and listening sessions, according to Percival.

President Murray does not have a say in the process of hiring her successor, but she commented at a recent faculty meeting that her closed search made it more challenging to create relationships with the faculty. 

“Because the search was closed, not all of you heard what I had to say to the search committee… and I regret that,” Murray said. 

Cooley and the AAUP are advocating for this presidential search to be open to the whole campus community because of the substantial benefits she says an open search affords. 

“I think that this is actually a topic where trustees and faculty can find a lot of common ground,” Cooley said. “Our area of difference is that I, at least, have not seen any evidence that a closed search is empirically better, whereas the benefits of an open search are tangible and substantial.”

These benefits include setting the tone for the new president’s tenure and establishing the college as a place that values transparency and inclusion. An open search gives the candidates an opportunity to get to know the campus community and gives the community an opportunity to raise questions or issues early on in the hiring process. Cooley advocates for sorting out a compromise between an open and closed search that could meet the needs of the campus community and potential candidates. 

“Open versus closed sets up two binary options, but I am sure there are actually many ways of devising a search format that provides some of the openness that benefits Whitman while also providing some of the confidentiality that candidates presumably desire,” Cooley said.