Opinion: Rich white businessmen aren’t best judges of college presidents

In choosing state Attorney General Sam Olens as Kennesaw State University president last year, the Regents ignored his lack of any higher ed experience and shut faculty and students out of the decision.

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte is a professor of media law and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, a think-tank advocating for government transparency.

In this smart piece, he writes about something that occurs frequently in Georgia, high-level government hires decided behind closed doors even though taxpayers pay the salaries. The results of these secretive dealings are often ill-fitting hires, says LoMonte, citing the Sam Olens saga at Kennesaw State University as an example.

LoMonte has Georgia ties. He practiced law with Sutherland Asbill and Brennan LLP in Atlanta and clerked for federal judges on the Northern District of Georgia and the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Prior to his legal career, he was an investigative journalist and political columnist. He was the capitol correspondent for the Florida Times Union, Washington correspondent for Morris News Service and the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris. He was the Otis Brumby Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at the Georgia Law School in spring-summer 2014 and has been a lecturer since 2015 in the University of Georgia Washington Program, teaching a course for undergraduates on “Law of Social Media.”

By Frank D. LoMonte

It’s not often that life hands you a do-over, but the departure of Kennesaw State University’s ill-fitting president, Sam Olens, gives the state a chance to right a terrible injustice done to everyone in the KSU community when the presidency was hijacked in a dubiously legal secret selection process.

Olens, who gave notice Thursday that he’s leaving Georgia’s third-largest public university after just 14 months on the job, was the only candidate considered by the state Board of Regents, despite having no higher-education experience. That he was the wrong person for the job should have become obvious, if the Regents had gone through the rigorous search process that a $430,000-a-year executive position deserves.

They didn’t. And they’re not alone. State after state has joined a shortsighted “race to the bottom” in competing to see who can be the most secretive in filling some of state government’s most powerful jobs.

Open-government laws that entitle the public to have meaningful input into the hiring of government executives are under attack across the country. In recent years, Nebraska and Wisconsin have rolled back their freedom-of-information laws to keep the public from finding out who’s being considered for college presidencies until the choice is done.

Even in Arizona, where the state Supreme Court has said unequivocally the public is entitled to the names of presidential candidates, the state just finished selecting the president of the University of Arizona in defiant secrecy, banking (successfully) on being able to finish the illicit hire before anyone could sue to stop it.

Georgia law entitles the public to at least some minimal level of oversight by requiring the Board of Regents to release the names of “as many as three” finalists before hiring a president. In a cynical manipulation of the law, the Regents have decided that “as many as three” means “one,” and in nearly every recent search, they’ve announced a “finalist list of one.” That’s cute — and contemptuous, both of the law and of the value of public input.

Frank LoMonte

The reason for this secrecy stampede is the dominance of executive search firms, which reap six-figure windfalls for placing candidates from their stockpile of resumés. The less public scrutiny, the better these headhunting firms like it. When only the name of the winner is announced, no one knows which candidates were turned down — which leaves the headhunters free to peddle the rejects to other universities.

Unfortunately, it’s now coming to light, thanks to a study by researchers at George Mason University, that executive-search firms rarely perform even basic background-checking on the presidents they place, not even calling the current employer to make sure that the candidate isn’t leaving under a cloud of scandal. You’d put more diligence into hiring a dog-sitter than colleges put into hiring presidents.

The lack of public oversight has led to disastrously bad mismatches and near-misses. In 2013, Penn State University came within hours of announcing New York medical-school administrator David Smith as its new president. Only a fortuitous leak of Smith’s name averted a catastrophe, when the university learned that Smith was under investigation by his current employer for financial misconduct.

At the University of Missouri, a secret search led to the hiring of catastrophically failed president Tim Wolfe, plucked out of the software industry with no education-management expertise. Wolfe’s inability to relate to students was exposed when he proved incapable of responding to campus racial tensions that not only destroyed his presidency but plunged the university into a financial and enrollment free-fall from which it still struggles.

Rigorous background-checking is more vital than ever, now that it has become well-known that universities secretly “pass the trash” of harassers from one institution to another by letting wrongdoers quietly resign. The only effective check is to make the names of candidates public while there’s time for whistleblowers to come forward.

Headhunting firms insist that “superstar” sitting presidents will not compete for other presidencies without secrecy, so as not to jeopardize their standing back home. But Georgia has almost never taken advantage of secret searches to lure superstar presidents from other states. Rather, secret searches invariably benefit hometown candidates with inside connections like Olens.

At the University of Georgia, documents pried loose from the Board of Regents by a college journalist showed that top Regents administrators actively discouraged a well-credentialed female candidate — Cathy Cox, now the dean of the Mercer University law school — from competing in the most recent presidential search. That cleared the path to elevate an insider candidate, Jere Morehead, to be UGA’s 22nd consecutive white male president. There is no indication any other candidate was even considered.

Fifteen of Georgia’s 19 Regents are white men, almost all are wealthy business executives, and only one has a background as an educator. Try as they might, the Regents can’t possibly represent the needs and concerns of diverse campus stakeholders. That’s why the community needs to be part of the hiring decision.

The president of a public university is equivalent to the major of a mid-sized city, with power over police, housing, healthcare, food services and personnel. Nobody would want to live in a city where the mayor was elected by 19 rich business executives in a locked room. Students, faculty and alumni deserve a chance to publicly question multiple serious candidates face-to-face, to avert the next Tim Wolfe or Sam Olens mismatch.

Public accountability doesn’t discourage good candidates from applying. It discourages applications from arrogant candidates who are opposed to open government or whose backgrounds are tainted by scandal. What will discourage good applicants is cultivating a reputation as a state where top university jobs are wired for politically connected cronies.

Georgia has tried secrecy, and it plainly doesn’t produce superstar presidents. It’s time to give honesty a chance.

 

Reader Comments 1

55 comments
methuselahschild
methuselahschild

the author is a bigot .. race should never be brought up when discussing who is the best to be president... maybe choose someone who can get the job done, who has character.. regardless of race..

TaxiSmith
TaxiSmith

The definition of bigotry, Mr. LoMonte. Shame.

Nichelle Young
Nichelle Young

Rich white businessmen only care about....... Wait for it...... Other rich white businessmen who can help them.

rbibus
rbibus

the problem is excluding the public and lack of transparency and the contempt of open records laws with these hiring decisions. 

But, I think it is good to call a thing what it is - the good old boy network. If it looks like a duck, let's call it a duck. 

It is 2017, and the current crop of mostly white republicans don't have any problem with breaking the law to sustain their insatiable greed to control everything that they think has value for only 'their own'.  Many of them don't want democracy, they want the confederacy, and it is relevant that UGA president has never been held by a non-white male to this article's point.

Republicans will loudly point out(correctly) when women or minorities discriminate, why do they want to censor the truth. This is end line with the Trump cabinet and agencies being directed to not use a slew of words like diversity, evidence-based, fact-based, etc... Heaven help us, will they start burning books next? 

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Wow.  Another race-bait, click-bait article from the AJC.  Who would'a guessed?

Imagine the uproar from the snowflakes if you had replaced "white" in the title with "black".  Day in and day out, the AJC runs these "news" stories that are little more than supermarket tabloid journalism.  In today's AJC, some sob story of how a black cheerleader got cropped from a picture.  Yes, that is what "hard hitting, unbiased journalism" looks like through the politically correct lens of the AJC.


I wonder if Maureen will ever connect the dots when her son moves back into the basement after college.  "Gee Mom, there doesn't seem to be any jobs for us white guys.

I doubt Maureen will ever see the light.  She'll be off "celebrating diversity" somewhere.

A college journalist
A college journalist

To me, the issue LoMonte writes about is lack of transparency and community participation. You can say it's about race until your blue in the face, but it's always about power and money.


Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Greed has no skin pigmentation.


Imagine if you got rid of the mentions of race in the only two spots in which LoMonte's piece mentions race:


"That cleared the path to elevate an insider candidate, Jere Morehead, to be UGA’s 22nd consecutive president. There is no indication any other candidate was even considered.


Only one of the 19 regents has a background as an educator. Try as they might, the Regents can’t possibly represent the needs and concerns of diverse campus stakeholders. That’s why the community needs to be part of the hiring decision."


People should get just as mad about words describing skin color and socioeconomic status as they do about the word INSIDER (candidate) and how only one of the regents has a background as an EDUCATOR. Those are the important points.


Goes back to what this issue is really about—transparency and community participation in the presidential hiring process.


Correct me if I'm wrong, but in dealing with both of those issues that don't generate as sensational a headline as the current would actually accomplish the goals of getting a quality candidate that a diverse community could identify with.


That's my way of saying, "Hey, you might actually get the diverse and qualified candidate you seek in those positions if you approached the issue from a non-sensationalist point of view."

rbibus
rbibus

@A college journalist I agree with most of what you focus on - the problem is excluding the public and lack of transparency and the contempt of open records laws with these hiring decisions. 

But, I think it is good to call a thing what it is - the good old boy network. If it looks like a duck, let's call it a duck. 

It is 2017, and the current crop of mostly white republicans don't have any problem with breaking the law to sustain their insatiable greed to control everything that they think has value for only 'their own'.  Many of them don't want democracy, they want the confederacy, and it is relevant that UGA president has never been held by a non-white male to this article's point.  

Republicans will loudly point out(correctly) when women or minorities discriminate, why do they want to censor the truth. This is end line with the Trump cabinet and agencies being directed to not use a slew of words like diversity, evidence-based, fact-based, etc... Heaven help us, will they start burning books next? 

SpinMeister
SpinMeister

A well-written explanation around the corruption of the board of regents is sullied by a clumsy play of the race/class card.


In contrast, the Atlanta Public School board has only one white male (unclear of his wealth) amongst its nine members, yet the APS record of poor performance and outright corruption is at least on par if not more outrageous than anything at KSU. So do we get to blame women and minorities? Or can we only bring race and class into the equation when it's white males?

Kathryn Tucker
Kathryn Tucker

There was no "judgement" when Olens was appointed, they just wanted his political position vacated for someone else.

Libertarian2018
Libertarian2018

Public colleges are just as predatory as private ones. Stop shilling for the public education lobby.  They both are looking to maximize the number of cannon fodder students to maintain their bloated benefits.  Nothing will change as long as students keep signing up for useless studies and unrealistic loans.

Elba Saravia
Elba Saravia

Rich white businessman are the best judges for most subjects, they are intelligent, hard workers, experienced.

Kathryn Tucker
Kathryn Tucker

I'm not saying there are none, but this is just like any blanket statement: wrong

Elba Saravia
Elba Saravia

Kathryn Tucker What I know I learned from , decent, hard & smart working, rich white Americans, their inspirational stories made me believe I could do it too, so I did became one of them. I ain't complaining from white America.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

Couldn't help reading this through a lens of how Atlanta school board members have come to cheat the public on selecting and hiring superintendents, especially the latest superintendent.

Astropig
Astropig

All of this hot air about what is (at bottom) political spoils.Always has been,always will be.When Democrats ran Georgia,they put their political torpedoes in these jobs and now that Republicans run the state,They are doing what they saw done by their predecessors.


When D's run the state again,they'll feed these "plums" to their donors and power brokers and then they will act exactly like the people they replace.Human nature knows no color or creed.As long as there are favors to be given and favors sought,these positions will be highly coveted by the power structure of any given time.

Lionel Sayku Kennedy
Lionel Sayku Kennedy

Say it ain’t so!!! You mean rich white men don’t have the Oracle??? Lies, AJC. All lies!!

WW5
WW5

Let the kneeling cheerleaders run the college

Hapless
Hapless

"15 of 19 of Regents are white men, almost all wealthy business executives" Hmmmm. I thought the purpose of college was to position our young to become successful, productive members of society and not some want to be liberal columnist with a desire to dumb down our young in the name of diversity and feel good progressive ideology.  I for one prefer a successful business executive, of any color, to be directing policy which has been proven by life experiences than by feel good progressives.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Hapless Historically, success in business was not enough. You also had to be a big donor.


4xtra
4xtra

@Hapless he was a political appointee

and YOU KNOW IT

redweather
redweather

Excellent opinion piece with some damning facts. Kudos to Frank LoMonte!

Michael McIntyre
Michael McIntyre

But if you just run everything in the world like a business, then the world will turn out just perfect!!! Because, you know....market forces!!! #sarcasm #icymi

Trump Fan 53
Trump Fan 53

Meanwhile UGA is one of the top research and academic universities in the country, a fact that is irrelevant to the argument.  How could that have happened with only white men leading UGA???

Q1225
Q1225

@UnknownGI911  UGA is one of the top universities in the state, but definitely not in the country.

4xtra
4xtra

@UnknownGI911

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ...
  • University of California at Los Angeles. ...
  • Johns Hopkins University. ...
  • Texas A & M University. ...
  • Princeton University. ...
  • California Institute of Technology – Caltech. ...
  • Yale University. ...
  • Cornell University.

TomGaff
TomGaff

The new president of KSU must either be black or a flaming LIBERAL!  Or else they protest!

Here's_to_Blue
Here's_to_Blue

@TomGaff Trolling nonsense.  Experience and expertise in governing a university should be of paramount consideration.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Georgia has so many examples of this, including and well beyond the BOR.  Think of how many there have been since Deal became governor.


I am surprised that the BOR "efforts" have not jeopardized the University System's SACS status, but then SACS also operates on the GOB* network. 


*Good Old Boy

AJPhillips
AJPhillips

Ms Downey,

My guess is some rich white boogey man has made it possible for you to sit up on your perch and pontificate. I'm all for a public process but my guess is that you believe we need a person of "color". 

Maybe you could nominate Al Sharpton to run Kennesaw. How about Cynthia Mckinney?


TruthReallyHurts
TruthReallyHurts

@AJPhillips Both would probably do at least as good a job as Olens, who was totally unqualified. In fact, McKinney would have done a better job, as she at least has experience in education.

Also, a Black man invented the traffic light (Garrett Morgan), so based on your convoluted logic and pithy comment to Maureen, I guess that only Black men like myself should be allowed to drive. Correct?

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Atlanta Doc @AJPhillips @TruthReallyHurts The "old rich white men" routine may be old, but it is persistent and widespread in the halls of government. These are the Regents who set policy for a public college system that is increasingly diverse.

TomGaff
TomGaff

@TruthReallyHurts @AJPhillips How is it that blacks are 15% of the population but you want to make all the decisions? You should be allowed to make decisions 15% of the time. Sounds fair, right?

MissDaisyCook
MissDaisyCook

So we should look at sex and race as a qualification?  

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@MissDaisyCook Without a word being said, sex (male) and race (white) has been a qualification for many top jobs in this state.

The bias in favor of white males in top leadership can be seen throughout Georgia's public institutions. If the people in charge don't make an effort to look beyond their natural bias, that status quo will essentially remain the same. My husband's grandmother was one of the first women to attend Johns Hopkins medical school. Some professors would not call on the women in the class, believing women could not and should not be doctors. It took people willing to get past those biases to open up medicine to women. New enrollment in medical school in 2016 was divided between women (49.8 percent) and men (50.2 percent).




catmom-scout
catmom-scout

@redweather Cynthia McKinney couldn't find her way out of a paper bag with one end open and a flashlight pointing the way.

feedback1
feedback1

LoMonte's views are those of his Democrat Party, which Georgia voters don't trust with even one statewide office.

Nor are Georgia voters unique in that respect.

TruthReallyHurts
TruthReallyHurts

@feedback1 And if it weren't for the Democratically-run city of Atlanta, your precious Georgia would be Mississippi in pretty much every category. #FactsMatter

SSINative
SSINative

I don't see the author's political affiliation mentioned. Are you presuming that he is a Democrat because he is intelligent, insightful and has critical thinking skills? Or because he has a firm grasp of the relevant law and a sense of outrage that it has been ignored?

4xtra
4xtra

@TruthReallyHurts @feedback1 well thats because many people like him want like hell that Georgia goes back to the good old days when "minorities" were in their place