A Contested Search

As Hocking College prepares to replace its president after 41 years, leader of search admits destroying evaluations of employees' top candidate.
April 27, 2009

Labor-management relations at Ohio's Hocking College are not unlike those at a lot of institutions: filled with suspicion if not outright mistrust. The college's founding president and leader for more than 40 years, John Light, once told colleagues that the technical college would have a union "over my dead body," and tension has marked governance there ever since.

That tension has loomed from the very start over the search for Light's replacement, following the president's announcement last winter, in the midst of a state investigation into possible misspending of state funds, that he would retire, after four decades of leading the institution.

Even before the search began, the Hocking College Education Association, the professional and faculty union at the institution, petitioned to ensure that it would have adequate representation on the 25-member committee. And at various stages over the last few months, the union's representatives on the search and other employees scrapped with those leading the process over whether they were communicating openly enough with the campus, among other issues.

The friction escalated again in February, when the search committee's chairman, the trustee Alan Geiger, and Hocking's outside consultant presented the members of the panel with a pool of 14 finalists that struck several employees on the search committee as "surprisingly weak," says Cheryl Mansky, a mathematics professor and head of the professional union, which is affiliated with the Ohio Education Association and the National Education Association.

Members of the search committee, including administrators as well as faculty members, asked to see the submissions of all of the 80-plus applicants, Mansky says, but were rebuffed by Geiger, who questioned their lack of trust in the process. So on their behalf, she filed an open records request, which was eventually granted, but only two days before the search committee's members were to meet to discuss their views on the 14 recommended candidates. "It was too late to do us much good," Mansky says.

At that meeting in March, the panel zeroed in on three candidates to invite for campus visits, early this month. As the committee's leaders set up the process, Hocking employees who met with the candidates were required to submit their evaluation of each candidate by the end of the day he or she visited; evaluations that were not submitted in that time frame were to be discarded.

Mansky says she was concerned that such an approach would not give Hocking employees the chance to evaluate the candidates head to head, and wrote Geiger to ask if the college would create "some kind of mechanism to compare candidates and rank them."

Geiger rebuffed her request, saying that he planned to provide the committee's members with summaries of the evaluations of each candidates, Mansky says. In response, she sent a staff e-mail suggesting that after the third candidate had visited, employees use empty space on their evaluation forms to rank all three candidates.

With the campus rumor mill churning with reports that the trustees on the search committee had made up their minds on a candidate, Geiger announced plans to present the summaries of the evaluations to Hocking's Board of Trustees at a meeting tomorrow. Concerned that the trustees might not get a full and accurate accounting of the results of the evaluations, Mansky filed another open records request to see all of the evaluations submitted about the three finalists. She planned to review and rank the evaluations statistically, and to make a presentation to the board if she and other members of the search committee did not believe that Geiger's summary accurately represented what she found in the full stack of evaluations.

But to Mansky's dismay, when she sat down last week with the evaluations Hocking officials had shared in response to the open records request, she found no documents pertaining to one of the three candidates -- anecdotally reported to be the faculty and staff's favorite, Ron Erickson, vice president of academic affairs and institutional planning at Dakota County Technical College, in Minnesota. "I called the president's secretary, and asked her, 'Why are there no evaluations for Ron Erickson?' " Mansky says. "She said -- and this is a direct quote -- 'Alan Geiger destroyed them.' "

A campus spokeswoman acknowledged to The Columbus Dispatch, which first reported on the situation at Hocking, that Geiger had indeed destroyed the evaluations because of his plan to present only summaries to the trustees. Geiger, a longtime official at nearby Ohio University, said in an e-mail reply to Inside Higher Ed that he would make a formal statement today about the situation. He added: "Suffice it to say there is consistent and comparable summary information available for all three candidates."

Geiger did not reply to a follow-up e-mail seeking responses to several specific questions, including his reasons for destroying Erickson's evaluations, which Mansky asserts is a clear violation of the state open records law.

On Sunday, Mansky shared a summary of her review of the existing evaluations with several union colleagues, and with Inside Higher Ed. It found that of the 73 employees who evaluated all three candidates, only 25 ranked the candidates or expressed a clear preference for one of them, and of those, more than 80 percent favored Erickson, with the rest backing David H. Devier, vice president for academic and student affairs at Ohio's Clark State Community College, widely seen as the board's favored choice.

Mansky's review acknowledges the "embarrassingly low number" of employees who chose to participate in the formal evaluation process. "When questioned as to why they did not participate in the evaluation process, without exception employees who chose not to fill out evaluation forms responded that they believed the Board of Trustees had already decided before the campus visits whom they would hire, that the interviews were just for show, and that the board would not pay attention to the evaluations no matter what they said," she wrote to her union colleagues.

"It can only be hoped," she added, "that the board will prove these employees wrong."


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