Who Gets to Decide?

As the newly independent University of Oregon searches for a new president, faculty and staff unions say it's being too secretive.


September 15, 2014

As the University of Oregon begins to look for its sixth president in seven years, faculty and staff union leaders say they are being blocked from having much say in the new search.

The public university last week approved a presidential search plan that union leaders say excludes their representatives and members from the search. Their concern is heightened because the new search is the first undertaken by the public university since it became more independent from the state. Before, its ultimate overseer was a statewide board. On July 1, it began to operate under its own Board of Trustees.

Oregon has had high turnover in its top spot. Its latest president, Michael Gottfredson, resigned in August after two years on the job. Provost Scott Coltrane is serving as interim president.

At a meeting last week, Board of Trustees Chairman Chuck Lillis, a Colorado businessman with some experience in higher ed, laid out a search plan that critics say is too secretive and excludes union representatives — and that gives Lillis himself too much say.

In an interview Friday, Lillis acknowledged his search was a “different” kind of plan. He created two committees: a search committee to do the actual searching and a presidential search advisory group to provide some say — how much is unclear — into who the search should focus on.

In an interview, Lillis disputed a newspaper account from the meeting that said he created a process that “reserves broad powers for himself — and a select group of others” by allowing him to conduct the search with an “assist” from the committee members. The Register-Guard said Lillis's plan gave him sole authority to rank and even eliminate finalists. In an interview Friday evening, he said he's not on the search committee, would be involved only as a member of the board and would not be "directly involved" until there are some finalists. (Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect further information on the chairman's broad powers in the following three paragraphs.)

But, the plan voted on by the board clearly gives Lillis more power than he let on.  The search plan approved by the board – which Lillis drew up – gives the chairman power to interview all the search committee’s finalists and a host of other powers.

“The chair is authorized to narrow the field of candidates after consultation with the committee, and is also authorized to rank the candidates,” the plan says.

Inside Higher Ed last week requested all documents that outlined the search plan but was not provided with the actual plan, which has was brought to the site’s attention on Monday by UO Matters, a blog that carefully follows the university. The plan clearly contradicts the chairman’s characterization of his powers in the Friday interview. A spokeswoman for the university, Julie Brown, said Monday the omission was “not intentional.”

Lillis said in the Friday interview, “I’m not going be directly involved until we get to where there are several, one or two or three good candidates — unless the search committee asks me to be involved, then, of course I’m willing to do whatever they want me to.”

Professor Michael Dreiling, president of United Academics, which represents 1,800 campus faculty, said the search process was unveiled without so much as a heads-up to the union. He also said the few faculty involved in the search were either not in the union or not representative of it.

“This is the most important decision the University of Oregon will be making this year, and I’m astonished and dismayed that whoever made this decision decided to ignore the largest organized constituency of faculty on this campus and instead appointed faculty who are clearly uninvolved or uninterested or antagonistic to the faculty union,” Dreiling said. “And I can’t see that as a measure that is taken in good faith or taken with concern for promoting good will on the campus.”

Lillis disputed that that the union was intentionally excluded and said faculty representation was good — citing not just two faculty representatives involved in the search committee but also the interim president and the interim provost, who he argued were both technically also faculty members.

He said to get a  “very attractive” candidate for president, Oregon might need to conduct its search in a secretive way.

“I don’t think people should be dogmatic about how this process goes on. The world changes every day and universities don’t change quickly, I understand, but periodically we need to make a change,” he said.

Lillis said he would like to have a few finalists appear on campus before a final decision was made, but he was not going to guarantee it.

The Statesman Journal newspaper has already editorialized against the process. “The presidential search planned by the University of Oregon disregards transparency, limits communication and ultimately smacks of arrogance,” the paper’s editorial board said Sunday. “That will serve neither the university nor the state.”

Carla McNelly, president of SEIU Local 085, which represents 1,700 staff, said the new Board of Trustees, which recently took control of the newly independent university, was beginning history on the wrong foot.

“If this board is starting July 1 to unravel shared governance, they are going to have the vast majority of the employees fighting back against that,” McNelly said.


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