GMU’s Campaign for a Public Presidential Search

by Bethany Letiecq, Tim Gibson, and Betsy DeMulder

March 11, 2020

First published in Academe Blog

This is the first in a series of three George Mason-AAUP Academe Blog posts on lessons learned from the presidential search campaign.

Presidential searches conducted at public universities have become secretive processes that exclude most if not all forms of public vetting and engagement. Historically, finalists for presidencies were invited to campus to make public presentations and answer questions posed by the faculty, students, staff, and the public at large. These constituencies were provided opportunities to weigh in on whom they thought was best to lead them. As Judith Wilde and Jim Finkelstein, our George Mason University (GMU) colleagues and experts on presidential searches, document, these once public and open processes are now closed and conducted in secret. Executive search firms and the privatization and CEO-ization of university presidencies are largely credited with this hiring shift or, as faculty at Miami Dade recently lamented, “the death of transparency.”

Secret search processes run counter to AAUP best practices, which recommend that candidates meet with faculty and students “to contribute to the candidate’s understanding of the culture of the institution…[and]…determine each other’s suitability”. Secret processes also run counter to our GMU faculty handbook, which states: “The search and selection process must include opportunities for the General Faculty to meet with candidates who are finalists for the presidency.”

In 2011, the GMU governing board ignored the AAUP recommendations and our handbook when it engaged in a secret search to hire our 7th President, Ángel Cabrera, with few faculty inputs (and those involved had to sign non-disclosure agreements or NDAs). That search left many of us feeling resentful and questioning the governing board’s commitment to upholding other aspects of our handbook, including promotion and tenure guidelines and grievance procedures.

So, in June of 2019, when President Cabrera resigned from GMU to take the helm of Georgia Tech, our AAUP chapter knew we had to organize to fight for our Handbook and a public search. This blog post details our advocacy chapter’s strategic campaign, (see timeline below).

Our first action was to hold a strategic planning session with our members and supporters (i.e., those not yet dues-paying members of AAUP) from across campus. At this session, we used an issue identification process that led to our collective commitment to fight for a public search. We then formed an organizing committee (the CORE) to drive both strategy and organizing efforts. We started meeting weekly because we knew these secret searches go quickly and time was of the essence.

Early on, we laid out our strategy using the Midwest Academy Strategy Chart. The strategy chart helped us determine one specific, winnable goal (in this case, a public forum with all presidential search finalists), how we wanted to develop our capacity as a chapter (e.g., the number of new leaders we wanted to develop, new members we wanted to recruit, and the ally relationships we wanted to build), and the clear target of our campaign.

Once we had our initial plan in place, we needed a better system to communicate with our members and supporters. We used the Action Network platform. We built a campaign landing page and started curating resources to educate faculty and others about the downside of secret searches. We also developed a social media plan, and CORE leader Tim Gibson created dozens of memes that we shared across social media platforms throughout the campaign. Included here are two examples.

Panda fail meme

Several of our CORE leaders were also members of the GMU Faculty Senate. This proved important as we formulated a GMU-AAUP resolution on the presidential search that we also advanced in the Senate. In October, we launched our resolution sign-on campaign via Action Network and generated nearly three hundred signatures. With our allied student group Transparent GMU, we also launched a petition for a public search and garnered nearly two hundred signatures. In November, we presented the GMU-AAUP resolution to the Faculty Senate—for effect, we pasted the names of all signers on poster board and delivered it to the Senate Chair—as we sought Senator support for our motion upholding our handbook and advancing an open and public search process. The motion passed. Our organizing mobilized this win and showed our power to the target, the GMU governing board chair, Rector Davis.

As part of our campaign strategy, we also engaged the media, including GMU’s student newspaper, the Fourth Estate. The paper ran a series of excellent articles throughout the campaign (for examples, see here and here) and, in November, published our “Dear Candidate” letter to the editor.

In December, we followed our published editorial with a “Dear Candidate” rally and press conference. Over seventy concerned faculty, students, and staff came together during finals week to demand a public search. We invited five faculty and students to speak and successfully earned press coverage.

Our final actions included a letter-writing campaign directed at the board chair, members of the board, and the search committee (ninety-five supporters sent letters) and turning out supporters to make public comments at one final search committee meeting seeking inputs about public engagement. We met with Virginia legislators and asked them to pressure the board for a public and transparent search. We also launched a liaison recruitment effort to continue to inspire and grow our reach across campus.

With every strategic campaign, there are two critical motivations: the motivation to win your goal and the motivation to increase the capacity of your chapter. At each event during our campaign, we recruited more faculty to join our AAUP advocacy chapter. By campaign’s end, we effectively doubled our membership. And while we did not win our precise campaign goal, we did push our target to a compromise. In the end, Rector Davis invited faculty senators (who signed NDAs) to represent the general faculty at a closed meeting with each of the four presidential finalists. The senators, including several GMU-AAUP members, were able to ask questions and provide feedback regarding the strengths and weaknesses of each finalist to the governing board. Although far from ideal, this level of engagement was only made possible because we increased the capacity of our chapter to show real power.

The guest bloggers are professors at George Mason University. Bethany Letiecq is president of the GMU AAUP chapter and associate professor of human development and family science, Tim Gibson is associate professor of communication, and Betsy DeMulder is professor and academic coordinator of transformative teaching.