George Mason University’s search for its next president should be conducted in the open with opportunities for faculty, students, and staff to meet, question, and evaluate finalists for the top administrative position, Mason faculty members and students argued in a demonstration on Dec. 12.
While classes took finals tests upstairs, faculty and students gathered in one of the student union buildings on Mason’s Fairfax campus to air their concerns about the ongoing presidential search at a “Dear Candidate” forum organized by the GMU chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
The forum took place on the same day that the Mason Board of Visitors convened in Fairfax for a meeting that included an update on the search, which was necessitated by former President Dr. Ángel Cabrera’s departure for the Georgia Institute of Technology over the summer.
Cabrera announced on June 13 that he would step down. Former Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton has been serving as interim president for Mason since Aug. 1.
“The last person we want to hire as president is someone who demands to be hired in a secretive, insulated process,” GMU communications professor Tim Gibson said. “…The president we need at Mason, in fact, is a president who is committed to the values of a public university: the values of openness, transparency, and community participation.”
Spurred by memories of Cabrera’s hiring, anxieties about how his successor will be selected emerged as soon as the George Mason University Board of Visitors unveiled its presidential search committee in July.
Faculty members who worked at Mason when Cabrera became president in 2012 say that his appointment violated the GMU faculty handbook, because the Board of Visitors did not consult faculty, staff, students, or other members of the university during the selection process.
Approved by the Board of Visitors, Mason’s faculty handbook establishes conditions of faculty employment, decision-making and governance structures and processes, and academic policies. Its provisions “are binding on the University and on individual faculty members,” according to the GMU Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President website.
Provision 1.2.5 of the handbook states that, in addition to having the general faculty elect representatives to participate on presidential search committees, the “search and selection process must include opportunities for the General Faculty to meet with candidates who are finalists for the presidency.”
According to professor emeritus James Sanford, who taught in Mason’s psychology department until retiring in 2014, the Board of Visitors held a candidate forum for elected faculty senators to meet Cabrera shortly before he was installed as president, but anyone who attended was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Sanford says he refused to attend the forum because of the non-disclosure condition and “lost respect” for Cabrera due to the lack of transparency in his hiring.
According to AAUP-GMU chapter president Bethany Letiecq, an associate professor of human development and family science at Mason, the five presidents who preceded Cabrera at Mason all delivered public presentations and were vetted by the university’s general faculty.
Nearly 300 George Mason faculty members signed a resolution adopted by AAUP-GMU on Sept. 29 demanding public forums so the Mason community can meet the finalists for president.
The faculty senate passed a resolution on Nov. 6 calling on the presidential search committee to involve faculty, students, and staff by holding public forums for each finalist with presentations, a question-and-answer period, and time to submit feedback.
Joined by other faculty and the student group Transparent GMU, Letiecq organized the “Dear Candidate” forum in a proactive effort to avoid a contentious presidential search process.
“Someone who is willing to come and subject themselves to a public search process is vital to showing us that they share our values of transparency, shared governance…and that they will work with us to make this university as great as it possibly can be,” Letiecq said.
The 19-member presidential search committee formed in July is co-chaired by Board of Visitors Vice Rector James Hazel and faculty senate chair Dr. Shannon Davis, the director of graduate studies in sociology at Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Along with Davis, Mason’s faculty is represented on the committee by Denise Albanese, an English and cultural studies professor who serves as director of the university’s PhD cultural studies program, and Dr. Girum Urgessa, an associate professor in the department of civil, environmental, and infrastructure engineering.
The committee also includes Rector Tom Davis, eight other members of the Board of Visitors, two representatives from the George Mason University Foundation board of trustees, College of Health and Human Services Dean Dr. Germaine Louis, staff senate chair Lauren Reuscher, student body president Camden Layton, and Peterson Companies CEO Jon Peterson, who has previously served as the university’s vice rector and as a board of trustees member.
To assist in the search for presidential candidates, George Mason hired the leadership consulting firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates.
“The Board of Visitors has been responsive to faculty’s concerns to be a part of the search for George Mason University’s next president,” the board said in a statement through GMU interim vice president of communications and marketing Michael Sandler.
In addition to including faculty and student representatives on the search committee, the board held “multiple” listening sessions to hear from both groups on their hopes for a new president.
According to Mason’s presidential search website, five open forums to solicit input on the search were held across the university’s campuses after the Board of Visitors named Holton interim president in June, but before the board named the search committee and hired the search firm.
“Most importantly, the co-chair of the search committee is the chair of the Faculty Senate,” the board said in its statement. “We continue to explore other ways to include faculty and students as part of the search and look forward to their input.”
According to minutes from an Oct. 10 Board of Visitors meeting, Rector Tom Davis suggested that an open search could result in “a smaller, less diverse pool of candidates due to the risk of exposure for their current employment,” though he also “noted the importance of faculty input.”
Hazel stated at the same meeting that all members of the presidential search committee signed a code of ethics regarding the search’s confidentiality, which he said “is very important in order to receive the best qualified candidates.”
During the Dec. 12 meeting, however, the rector and vice rector both sounded receptive to more closely involving Mason’s faculty in the candidate search, particularly once the process reaches the interview stage, which will likely start in January.
The search committee is currently still looking at resumes, cover letters, and other application materials, according to Tom Davis, who says the committee hopes to come to a final decision on Mason’s next president by the end of February but will take more time if needed.
While completely open meetings with finalists would be ideal, Shannon Davis proposed having faculty who meet with the candidates sign a code of ethics similar to what was required for the search committee members as an alternative that the faculty senate might accept.
The Mason student senate has also suggested finding a way for the finalists to talk with faculty and students without revealing their identities, Davis told the Board of Visitors.
Tom Davis says the search committee and Board of Visitors are “committed” to making the search process as broad as possible, but it is too early “to bind ourselves to a certain procedure.”
“The last thing we want to do is pick somebody and have a faculty uprising,” the rector said. “We’re all in this thing together, and the same goes for the students…You can have my assurance – and I think the board would agree – we want to keep you involved in this.”
On the surface, how a university president gets hired may seem like a fairly insular concern, but Mason faculty and students’ demand for an open, inclusive search process stems from a general desire to ensure accountability and community involvement at a public institution that is funded by tax dollars, Letiecq says.
While the AAUP GMU president appreciates that the Board of Visitors wants to work with the community, she argues anything short of ensuring all general faculty members have a chance to meet with the final candidates for president would constitute a violation of the faculty handbook and “further erode institutional trust.”
“We are a public university that should be open to public scrutiny,” Letiecq said. “A public search is a fundamental part of good governance and transparency of process.”