The Costs of Secret Presidential Searches

by Bethany Letiecq and Judith Wilde

April 2, 2020

First published in Academe Blog

This is the second in a series of three George Mason-AAUP Academe Blog posts on lessons learned from the presidential search campaign. Read the first post on GMU’s campaign here.

Over the past year, two of the Washington, DC, region’s largest public universities lost their presidents. The University of Maryland–College Park president, Wallace Loh, announced his retirement in 2018 and will leave at the end of June 2020. The president of George Mason University, Ángel Cabrera, announced last April 2019 that he was leaving to become president of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Upon learning that their presidents were leaving, the governing bodies of both institutions did what nearly all of universities do today, they hired an executive search firm—or headhunters—to assist them in finding their next presidents. The use of these firms is relatively new in higher education. Fifty years ago, fewer than 2 percent of presidential searches were conducted with headhunters. By 2015, more than 92 percent of all presidential searches used such firms, (unpublished research, Judith Wilde, 2018). This coincides with the privatization and corporatization of public universities more broadly.

Headhunter costs for a presidential search easily can exceed $300,000. For in-state students at either Maryland or Mason, that’s roughly equal to thirty full scholarships this year. And while the amount being paid to these for-profit search firms should be of concern, even more alarming is the secrecy they bring to the search process.

Secret searches run counter to the long-established principle of shared governance—including, until recently, the long-held tradition of finalists meeting with faculty, staff, and students to give public presentations before the governing board makes its final choice. That did not happen at Maryland or Mason and is not happening at many public universities across the country. Here are three reasons why the university community and the public should be concerned and should demand transparency.

First, the most important task of a university’s governing board is to hire a president, who will probably be the highest paid state employee—excluding athletic coaches. Their contracts, including salaries, bonuses, deferred compensation, and perks, can total millions of dollars. Together, the new presidents of Maryland and Mason will be leading complex public institutions with combined budgets of more than $3 billion, as well as 80,000 students and 20,000 employees. It is difficult to understand how hiring these public executives in secret can be in the public interest.

Second, presidents are hired with the understanding and expectation that they will uphold a core value in higher education, that of shared governance. This concept and practice is one of the features that makes universities unique. As the AAUP has long recognized in its joint Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities:

The variety and complexity of the tasks performed by institutions of higher education produce an inescapable interdependence among governing board, administration, faculty, students, and others. The relationship calls for adequate communication among these components, and full opportunity for appropriate joint planning and effort.

Shared governance is so important to the vitality of higher education that a survey of governing boards and presidents found it to be “an essential institutional asset.” However, secrecy erodes the foundation of shared governance by denying this interdependence and preventing faculty from fulfilling their responsibility to help determine the future of the institution.

Finally, while search firms often advise governing boards that secrecy is needed to assure that the “best” candidates will apply, it can have unintended consequences. This is especially true if negative information comes out after a candidate is named as the “sole finalist” or announced as the new president. Here are a few examples.

After a secret search for a new president at the University of Colorado last year, Mark Kennedy was named as the “sole finalist.” As soon as his name became public, there were questions raised about his tenure at the University of North Dakota and his service as a congressman in Minnesota. The controversy surrounding that search continues. A Denver District Court Judge recently ruled that the Colorado Board of Regents violated the state’s open records statute when the University did not release the names of all finalists for the position.

At Mason, we just completed a secret search—the second in our history. After our new president was announced, faculty learned that he is a defendant in a lawsuit filed by a former faculty member who alleges tenure denial on the basis of sexual orientation. While the original lawsuit was dismissed, it is now on appeal. Gregory Washington, currently dean of the engineering school at the University of California-Irvine, will begin his appointment on July 1. If our governing board had followed the public search requirements in our faculty handbook, the university community would have had the opportunity to consider this information and raise pertinent questions as part of their review of the finalists.

This is exactly what happened in the current search at the University of Central Florida. University of Texas-Arlington president Vistasp Karbhari was a candidate for this position. He made it to the round of seven candidates when names were made public. At that point, news surfaced of his involvement as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by a UT-Arlington employee. However, because this was an open search, people were aware of the allegations and could ask questions and vet him. The UCF search committee ultimately named him as one of the three finalists. A few days later, when additional allegations were reported, he withdrew from the search. Now under investigation over an alleged improper relationship between the university and an online program management company, Dr. Karbhari has resigned from UT-Arlington, effective immediately.

There have been unsubstantiated rumors that Dr. Karbhari was a candidate for the position at Mason and made it to the final round of four. Because of the secret search process, we may never know; however, we wonder where we would be today if he had been hired and this information came to light after-the-fact.

Given the importance of the presidency to the success of one of our most vital of public institutions, those who we entrust to lead our colleges and universities should not be selected in secret. Indeed, the candidates themselves should demand a public process as they signal their deep commitments to transparency, shared governance, and the public good. There is too much at stake.

The guest bloggers are professors at George Mason University. Bethany L. Letiecq is an associate professor of Human Development and Family Science, a faculty senator, and president of the GMU AAUP chapter. Her email is Judith A. Wilde is the chief operating officer and a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government. Her email is