For a public school, the University of Southern Indiana has been awfully private lately.
Since President Linda Bennett announced her impending retirement in August, the university has been conducting a massive exploration for its next leader with search committee members telling the student newspaper The Shield they’ve waded through at least 90 candidates.
On Tuesday, the board of trustees met to “discuss personnel matters” and perhaps set a date to vote on the next president. That will happen in a public meeting. And it will mark the first time Vanderburgh County citizens have gotten even a glimpse at the process that will select a highly paid public employee.
Thus far, the entire search has taken place behind locked doors. No one — not even most university employees — know who the finalists are.
Back in February, The Shield called for a more transparent process. University officials ignored it.
That stands in sharp contrast to 2008/2009 when USI chose Bennett to replace H. Ray Hoops.
I worked at The Shield at the time. Journalists were fed resumes of the three finalists — Bennett, Robert Parrent and Timothy Todd — and each candidate endured hourlong question-and-answer sessions open to whoever wandered in the door.
This time? Nothing. Search committee members have said confidentiality is necessary to field the best possible candidates. That’s a weird excuse considering how open they were a decade ago. Did transparency create a weak field the last go around?
USI has been about as open in its presidential search as the University of Evansville was recently, but at least UE has an excuse: it’s a private school.
It’s all part of a trend of burgeoning closed-mouth culture at the university and betrays desperate desire to micromanage any message that comes squeaking out of the campus.
A couple years ago, USI drafted an overreaching media policy. Any reporter who goes to campus for a story is “encouraged” to contact university communications first so the reporter can be watched and led around. And let’s say some big news event happens, such as another economic crash. If a reporter calls an economics professor for context, that professor is “strongly encouraged to notify and use University Communications as a resource before providing any information” — as if they need the help of a PR team to talk about their expertise.
Then there’s the ongoing Physical Activities Center renovation. When USI announced “phase one” in 2016, trustees said it would cost about $16 million. But that’s just the part from legislative appropriation. It actually cost about $27 million, according to the board of trustees agenda from its January meeting, and the whole project has quietly ballooned to about $66 million.
As far as the presidential search, USI can do it this way for a couple reasons. One, it’s legal. And two, the public probably doesn’t care.
Ninety-nine percent of you aren’t going to be directly affected by the actions of a university president. But this is a lucrative position. Bennett makes $294,000 a year — all on the public nickel. That’s almost three times what we pay Mayor Lloyd Winnecke.
It would be nice for USI to think about that and keep us in the loop. They’ve done it before. And after all, they are a public university.