On Process

March 20, 2013 | Blog

Paul Fanlund’s column today on the process through which Rebecca Blank was selected as chancellor raises some very important questions.  These strike me as the sorts of questions that one should ask regardless of whether or not they agree with the choice of Blank.  After all, these process issues go to the heart of how we select a chancellor at a shared governance institution.

1. How are we to know whom the campus “unanimously” supports?

The current practice is that the process of official input from shared governance bodies ends when the search and screen committee names its four finalists.

When that committee meets with the Regents special committee, it is to provide input on what people on campus said about all of the candidates.  At no point in the Blank search did the search and screen committee have the opportunity to tell the Regent committee whom the campus “unanimously” chose. Moreover, the search and screen committee did not have a clear selection of a candidate– there was widespread disagreement.

This should be changed to allow the shared governance search and screen the chance to officially vote on a candidate after campus visits, just as they do when hiring a faculty member.  At the very least, that official vote could be conveyed to the Regents.

2. Why is the campus asked to write in with their comments about candidates if there is no official process through which that information is compiled and shared?

Comments were received through 5 pm Thursday evening. The shared governance committee met with the Regents Friday morning, and the decision was made that same day.  What was done with all of those submitted emails in the meantime? Were they counted?  Did they reflect “unanimous” support from campus groups?

This has the potential to greatly reduce campus involvement in the process.  There should be a transparent process through which feedback is collected and the information systematically made available to decision-makers well before the decision is made.

3. Which campus groups are prioritized in the selection of a chancellor?

Fanlund’s article says that Blank was unanimously supported “by the various campus constituencies that include campus deans, the University Committee, which is the executive committee of the Faculty Senate, as well as affiliated entities such as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and the Wisconsin Alumni Association.”

What about the Associated Students of Madison?  Academic Staff? These are two of the three shared governance bodies and yet are not mentioned, while WARF and WAA, not part of shared governance, are.  Who are Fanlund’s “not for attribution sources” and what does this set of priorities reflect?

The shared governance bodies should have clear priority in this effort.

4.  Is it appropriate for the shared governance Search and Screen Committee to be forbidden by the search firm from exploring the candidate’s background (aka conducting “due diligence”) other than through their written materials?  Why does that committee’s last vote come without full information?

Again, this is a recipe for disaster. It should not be allowed in future searches. Frankly, the search firm should not be allowed to do anything more than recruit candidates.  Members should not attend interviews or create rules for a shared governance committee.

Finally, as someone who appreciates empirical evidence, I have just two last remarks.  I am struck by the fact that Fanlund opens his article by noting that Blank met with the Regents “without seeming to survey eyes around the room to gauge what interviewers wanted to hear” and finished 20 minutes early, and yet was judged to be an “effective listener.””Her ability to communicate” was judged of key importance.  How is this possible?  Not only do these observations stand at odds with the characteristics of good listeners, but many people, including Professor Chad Goldberg, student committees, and I all observed a pattern of not listening and not answering questions in a straightforward manner.  Since we all entered the process very excited to have a liberal social scientist become chancellor, it seems unlikely that we ignored strong communication skills. How can we make sense of this?

In a similar vein, what information did the Regents use to conclude that Blank was comfortable with shared governance?  The only available statements from shared governance members indicate significant concerns with her interactions with those members.  What assessment protocol did they use to determine this was incorrect?

Given that, as Fanlund notes, “there seemed to be much focus during this process on not repeating what was now regarded as a mistake in having hired Martin in 2008” and given that the known mistake was in the Regents’ selection of Biddy Martin over Rebecca Blank (the campus pick)– and that fast forward several years it seems we may be here yet again, with Rebecca Blank chosen over Michael Schill (whom I’m told by my ‘sources’ was the pick of many, many people on the search & screen, and the students), well…this is all quite odd.  What’s also amazing is the amount of attention the media has devoted to covering the outcome of the search, rather than doing the kind of investigative reporting needed to ensure that major social institutions are accountable and responsive to their publics.  I imagine that when you know no one will ask questions, it’s awfully easy to act as if you’ll never have to provide answers.

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