Secrecy Surrounds Presidential Search
In 1993, Fred Starr’s impending resignation as Oberlin’s president prompted a presidential search similar to the one currently underway for Nancy Dye’s successor. As of early December that year, students and faculty alike could speculate as to who might be selected to serve and the rumor mill churned out names day and night. Today, with only weeks left until Dye’s resignation is effective, any guess about who will be Oberlin’s next president is as good as another.
This generation’s Committee, comprised of the Board of Trustees chairman, the president of the Alumni Association, three professors and one student, has maintained a policy of strict confidentiality throughout the process.
Recently, an additional “ad hoc” committee was brought on board to interview 12 finalists, but those 12 names are still kept under wraps.
“They’re not allowed to say much of anything,” said Vice President of College Relations Alan Moran, who says he was only brought into the process last week. “I’ve been working here for 17 years and this is the first time I’ve ever had to sign a confidentiality agreement.”
Robert Lemle, chairman of the Board, is the only member of the Committee authorized to speak on behalf of the search. He has communicated with the College through a series of memos mailed out to students and faculty periodically, memos deliberately vague on specifics.
Several requests for interviews with professors serving on the Search Committee were denied. Even one member of the ad hoc committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was concerned about what information could be revealed to the public.
“I don’t know what can and can’t be said,” the ad hoc committee member said. “I’m already worried I’ve said too much just by talking to you.”
“It’s really frustrating for students and faculty with this barrier in place between them and the [Presidential Search] Committee,” the source continued.
Members of the Committee, however, have emphasized the importance of confidentiality at this stage in the process.
“[It] is imperative that we maintain [finalists’] candidacies in a fully confidential manner. To do otherwise…would risk losing their continued status as candidates for the Oberlin presidency,” Lemle wrote in one progress report addressed to the Oberlin community.
Class Trustee Adam Sorkin, OC ’04, who sits in the ad hoc committee, expanded on Lemle’s explanation.
“I now have a much deeper appreciation for confidentiality,” Sorkin said, emphasizing that the results of candidates’ names becoming public would lead to complications and tensions within their institutions, where they may serve in key leadership positions. “In many cases, the candidates expressed to the Committee how important it was for [the Committee] not to disclose the information that they were applying for this position.”
Moran added that recent tecnological advances have made the need for confidentiality all the more urgent.
“Things are so much more open with the web now,” he said. “It’s so much easier for word to get back to a candidate’s employer through the grapevine.”
Tom Courtice, a senior consultant at Academic Search Inc. who has been working extensively on Oberlin’s presidential search, praised the College’s code of confidentiality: “The Oberlin requirement for confidentiality is no more stringent than other presidential searches, but the explanation, the justification, the exposure, and the reaffirmation of the code throughout this search have been extensive and exemplary,” he said.
Insights into the process of selecting Oberlin’s next president are also highly confidential in a new way. In 1993, the Review was able to disclose that 105 nominees were recommended to the board of trustees as finalists, and then-Chairman of the Search Committee William Perlik, OC ’48, revealed that half of the candidates were women and minorities. As the search drew to a close, the Review could even print specific names of candidates rumored to be under consideration.
Only last week, through Secretary of the College Bob Haslun, did the Review learn that this Committee would only bring one candidate to campus, rather than three finalists as was the case 13 years ago. This information was at no other point disclosed by any member of the Search Committee.
This is in stark contrast to what Christopher Pinelo, OC ’94, described as the importance of campus visits in determining which finalist would be the best fit for Oberlin in the 1993 search. Pinelo was the only student to serve on the Presidential Search Committee that appointed Dye.
“I wanted to see how the candidates did in an open forum full of Obies — the proverbial ‘hot seat,’” Pinelo said. “Addressing the concerns of students and the larger Oberlin community was and remains a big part of the job of being president.”
Lemle, however, expressed his concerns about bringing three candidates to campus to meet with students. One reason has to do with what he described as maintaining a “search environment that respects the rights and dignity of all persons.”
“To bring other candidates to campus who have no chance of becoming Oberlin’s next president would be unfair to those individuals, to their families and to the Oberlin community,” Lemle explained.
There was also a general feeling that the campus visit process was extremely difficult for the candidates.
“It was generally agreed that for the candidates themselves it was a truly awful experience,” said Haslun, who has witnessed three presidential searches in his time at Oberlin. “The worst thing was this mass meeting where there was an open mic. People were asking things like will you approve specific new faculty positions? They didn’t know. You need more information to answer questions like that. I went to all three meetings and I remember thinking ‘Oh, these poor people!’”
Pinelo remembers it differently, however.
“The campus visits were terrific,” he said. “The open forums were packed with students, staff and faculty. I recall students being especially vocal about their concerns with each of our three finalists, but they were neither hostile nor hurtful — just passionate…I know that we had picked three excellent finalists because they all did pretty well.”
Dye could not be reached for comment.
Lemle maintains that students are considered an important constituency and that even after the candidate is brought to campus, whenever that may be, community concerns will still be taken into account.
Haslun, however, stressed that the Search Committee will make a decision, even in the face of public opposition. Dye was not endorsed by Student Senate or the Review during the last search process and it was generally agreed that student sentiment was in support of Ruth Simmons, now president of Brown University. When asked what assurances students may have that they will have more of an influence this time, he responded:
“None, and here’s why. The Board of Trustees’ most sacred charge is to find a president and back that choice. They’ll listen to everybody and they’ll make that decision. If that happens in the face of opposition they may have to weigh things that the community doesn’t understand.”