When Purdue University administrators announced their new president this month, they omitted some key information: how and why they chose this person.
What made the event even more surprising was that the trustees announced the retirement as president of Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., who led the university for a decade, at the same time as they named his successor, Mung Chiang, the Dean of Engineering and Purdue. Executive Vice President for Strategic Initiatives.
Selecting a university president is often described as a board’s most important responsibility, but this task usually comes with at least a modicum of transparency and constituent input, including faculty, staff and students. The stealth decision to appoint a new chairman at Purdue has set off nationwide alarm bells as the latest example of directors’ willingness to ignore core values of shared governance.
While it’s up to the board to hire the president, doing so without buy-in from campus voters can lead to backlash and lack of trust in the new leader, said Leigh S. Raymond, professor of political science and president. of the American Association of University Professors chapter on the West Lafayette campus.
“There are different ways to run a university,” Raymond said, “and the board chooses a way that’s not productive and not good for faculty morale.”
As the research of university presidents has become more secretive in recent years, Purdue’s board may have set a new precedent for opacity. Not only was no search announced publicly, but the council did not even tell Chiang and other potential candidates that they were being considered, said Michael R. Berghoff, the council’s chairman.
If we hadn’t been so sure of the candidate, we would have been more likely to have a search that looked outward.
Instead, the board assessed several members of Daniels’ management team “on the job” over a three-to-five-year period, Berghoff said in an interview. Even as a decision approached, the council did not conduct any formal talks with Chiang, he said.
The board did not need to interview Chiang, Berghoff said, because Daniels had provided regular updates on the dean’s successes. Additionally, Berghoff said, administrators had already obtained feedback on Chiang’s performance from a variety of sources, including people on campus and elected officials who had worked with Chiang.
The process and the decision resembled how the board of directors of a large corporation might select a new leader by considering internally trained talent, said Berghoff, founder and chairman of Lenex Steel Corporation.
“If we hadn’t been so sure of the candidate,” Berghoff said, “we would have been more likely to have research that looked outward.”
Chiang, who earned a doctorate in electrical engineering at Stanford, has a long list of accomplishments as an academic and entrepreneur, with numerous awards for research and teaching. He holds more than two dozen patents and has co-founded three start-ups as well as a global non-profit group. His Purdue biography credits his leadership with improving engineering school rankings and enrollment as well as a significant increase in sponsored research.
But surprise announcements from campus officials in other cases have sometimes ended badly both for the person who took the job and for the reputation of the institution. The challenge for these leaders, even when well-qualified for the job, is that a flawed process without public vetting leaves them with a deficit of goodwill from the campus community, according to governance experts. .
“While the research process is intended to help gather diverse perspectives and ensure that the candidate is considered from all angles, it also serves to legitimize the process and build trust among stakeholders,” according to a written statement from ‘Henry Stoever, President and CEO. of the Association of Boards of Governors of Universities and Colleges, a not-for-profit organization that promotes best practices.
Several presidents or system heads who were named sole finalists and with minimal verification from campus have resigned under pressure, including F. King Alexander of Oregon State University and Mark R. Kennedy of the University of Colorado system.
Chiang is no stranger to Purdue, but faculty members resent the council’s secrecy and worry that trustees will consider only a narrow perspective in evaluating Chiang, even in his current position.
AAUP chapters on three of Purdue’s campuses, as well as the national organization, issued statements condemning the board’s lack of transparency.
“There are many ways that academic institutions are not the same as businesses,” said Alice Pawley, a professor at Purdue’s School of Engineering Education and former president of the AAUP chapter on the West Lafayette campus. In particular, she said, university hiring is about giving all job applicants an equal chance of getting the job based on their qualifications, not favouritism.
It is interesting that the board has adopted a corporate strategy. An academic strategy aims to hire people on merit with as little bias as possible.
“It’s interesting that the board has adopted a corporate strategy,” she said. “An academic strategy aims to hire people on merit with as little bias as possible.”
Although Chiang’s college credentials are appropriate for an executive position, Pawley said, his administrative experience at Purdue is somewhat thin. Chiang was named dean of engineering in 2017 and has yet to pass the typical five-year exam for a director, she said.
Chiang also didn’t spend all that time at Purdue, Pawley said, because he took time off to serve as an adviser to the US secretary of state during the last year of the Trump administration. In the most recent year, Chiang has split her time between serving as dean of engineering and as vice president, she said.
Raymond, the AAUP chapter president, said the council’s actions in this case and others are part of a larger trend toward the corporatization of higher education.
Over the past few years, Raymond said, faculty and other groups at Purdue have been excluded from decisions and actions that directly impact academic matters, such as the creation of a new online institution from the purchase of for-profit Kaplan University.
Last year, the board approved a new civics requirement despite a vote against it by the university’s Senate and warnings from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which champions freedom academics and freedom of expression that the process had undermined shared governance and faculty trust. .
“It’s a highlight,” Raymond said, “to act like a higher education institution, it’s effectively the same as ExxonMobil.”