Nfld. & Labrador

MUN defends presidential search process panned as too secretive by critics

Memorial University has been put on the defensive over how it is selecting a new president, but is not backing down on a formula that some influential groups are describing as too secretive.

Faculty, student unions want to question short-listed candidates

Memorial University spokesperson David Sorensen is defending MUN's process for selecting a new president to replace Gary Kachanoski. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Memorial University has been put on the defensive over the way it is selecting a new president, but is not backing down on a formula that some influential groups are describing as too secretive.

"We surveyed 27 universities and not one has an open portion for short-listed candidates, so we're very similar actually to most universities," MUN spokesman David Sorensen told CBC News on Friday.

Unions representing nearly 900 faculty and 12,000 students at MUN spoke out Friday about a process they contend should have more transparency, with more public accountability for those being considered for the job.

"The finalist contenders should be invited to give public presentations to the university and submit to questioning from faculty members," said associate professor Ken Snelgrove, president of MUN's faculty association.

"It will help shine light on the process. These processes shouldn't be secret," he added.

Ken Snelgrove is president of the faculty association at Memorial University, representing some 850 faculty members. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The students' union is also unsettled by the process, with spokesman Liam O'Neill agreeing that the names of the short-listed candidates should be revealed publicly, "rather than [to] just a few select people who are very high in administrative roles and in lots of ways detached from the community."

Longtime president Gary Kachanoski is stepping down at the end of December. An international search is underway for his replacement, led by a private executive search firm.

The successful candidate will become one of the province's highest-paid public employees, and take over at a time of ongoing budget cuts from the province, infrastructure deficits, and widespread belt-tightening.

Only when the ballots are burned and the white smoke comes out of the arts and administration building will we know who the new president is.- Ken Snelgrove

But there's tight secrecy over the selection process, with members of the selection committee having signed a non-disclosure agreement.

"Only when the ballots are burned and the white smoke comes out of the arts and administration building will we know who the new president is," said Snelgrove.

The faculty association's calls for a more public selection process have fallen flat.

Liam O'Neill is director of external affairs for the students' union at Memorial University in St. John's. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The university senate, which primarily comprises faculty and represents the academic interests of the university, is divided on the issue.

And Sorensen says that's telling.

"If the senate didn't agree, then that might be a bellwether of where people's attitudes are around presidential searches," he said.

The search process has been ongoing for months, and began with the creation of a selection committee headed by Iris Petten, chair of the university's board of regents.

The committee also includes faculty members, students, MUN administration and a public representative.

There were provincewide consultation sessions to gather input for the position profile, with some 300 online submissions, and Sorensen said the faculty association provided solid input during that process.

But after that, the search went behind closed doors, which is something O'Neill disagrees with.

"There's been a trend toward closed searches and using outside firms and paying lots of money to do the searches, so I think there's a missed opportunity there," he said.

Gary Kachanoski, who became Memorial University's 12th president in July 2010, will leave the university's top post at the end of December. (Memorial University)

One of the arguments against a more transparent process is that it might discourage some top candidates from applying, while a closed search attracts a stronger and more diverse pool of candidates.

Snelgrove does not accept that argument.

"They should be able to take some personal risk in presenting themselves," he said, adding that in order to have a functioning university, academics have to share in the decision-making processes.

"We feel that presenting the short-listed candidates is an important process so we can question those candidates and provide feedback to the selection committee."

O'Neill agreed.

"I think if you're interested and if you want such a big, significant, important role, then I think you'd be willing to go through that process," he said.

'We want to be heard'

Snelgrove added, "We want to be heard. We want to have our say, but not necessarily that we are going to influence. As long as we have our say and they have to take that evidence into consideration, that's all we're really looking for," he added.

Sorensen said the university is open to revisiting the policy

"[But] we don't believe that the middle of a search is the appropriate time to change the rules around that search."

Sorensen also defended the use of a private search firm.

"The consultant is very experienced in presidential searches and is, in fact, possibly more efficient than our own human resources would be."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at: