Editorial: Oregon search plans set poor example for university boards

Editorial: Oregon search plans set poor example for university boards

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We noted in an earlier editorial that the first major test for the boards that now govern Oregon’s largest public universities would come in Eugene, where the University of Oregon’s board of trustees is searching for a new president.

Oregon’s board recently released details of how it intended to conduct its presidential search. For those of us who hoped that these boards would conduct their vitally important business with a premium on openness and transparency, it’s not promising.

Chuck Lillis, the chairman of Oregon’s board, ran his proposal for the search process by his colleagues, who approved the plans on a 12-1 vote. Here’s the plan, in a nutshell: Lillis essentially will run the search, mostly in private. He alone will have the power to rank and eliminate finalists.

It’s a big departure from the past two presidential searches at the university, in which the state appointed search committees with two dozen or so members. Those committees shared the responsibility of identifying and interviewing candidates.

Lillis told the board that it needed a different way to hire presidents, for a couple of reasons: First, he said, the search may well be marked by some unorthodox recruiting: “There’s a pretty good chance that the person we think is terrific isn’t looking for a job, and we may have to convince them that this is where they should land.”

Another reason for an essentially private search process, Lillis said, was the recent “churn of presidents” at the University of Oregon. Each of the two most recent presidents – Michael Gottfredson, who abruptly resigned in August, and Richard Lariviere – each served just two years. But the “churn of presidents” claim is somewhat ironic, considering the widespread speculation that the board of trustees pressured Gottfredson into resigning.

As reported in the Eugene Register-Guard, the plans do call for a 14-member “assist” committee largely made up of trustees and administrators, along with a 12-member committee, including some students and office workers, to provide “relevant perspectives and insights.”

Representatives of organized staff and teacher groups objected to the plans, fearing that their views on the university’s next president would be relegated to the sidelines. Those fears seem justified.

The sole vote on the board of trustees against the search plans came from Kurt Willcox, a labor union advocate and part-time research analyst at the university. Willcox noted that nobody on the board (except for Lillis) had seen the plans before the day of the vote.

Part of our concern with this is that we suspect trustees at other Oregon universities such as Oregon State and Portland State are watching this process with considerable interest, looking for cues about how they will conduct their own business. In this matter, the University of Oregon board is setting a poor example for its counterparts.

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