In Chancellor Search, Pa. Chips Away Public Input

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    It used to be that the names of the finalists for the highest-paid job in Pennsylvania state government _ chancellor of the State System of Higher Education _ were made public.

    Not anymore.

    In the coming days, the board of the 14-university system is expected to announce its pick for the next chancellor after keeping the names of three finalists a secret.

    Such secrecy is said to be an emerging trend in searches for executives in higher education as would-be candidates might fear reprisal if their current employer found out that they were job hunting.

    So, on Jan. 11, the state system's board member met and voted unanimously to make the entire search process confidential. The search is supposed to bar contact with a candidate's current employer to ensure that confidentiality _ except, it seems, in the case of one candidate.

    One of the board members voting for that policy was Gov. Tom Corbett's then-secretary of education, Ronald Tomalis, who also apparently is a finalist in a process in which Corbett has substantial input.

    Since the Patriot-News of Harrisburg first reported it July 25, citing people speaking anonymously, nobody _ not Tomalis, Corbett or state system officials _ has disputed it. Tomalis on Friday turned down requests from The Associated Press to discuss it.

    Tomalis' last day as Corbett's education secretary was May 31. By law, the secretary of education sits on the state system's board. At the time, Tomalis turned down interviews to explain why he was leaving the post, but he kept the nearly $150,000-a-year salary to take a newly created post as an adviser on higher education issues to Corbett, a Republican.

    If Tomalis is hired as chancellor, it would represent a departure from the first three chancellors of the 31-year-old state system. All three _ James McCormick, Judith Hample and John Cavanaugh _ had a background in university administration and a doctoral degree. Tomalis, 51, has a bachelor's degree and no background in university administration, but for much of the last 18 years he has held top-level positions in both the federal and state Departments of Education.

    Pennsylvania's state system, with about 115,000 students, is the nation's 13th-largest public university system. The previous chancellor, Cavanaugh, left in February. At the time his salary was $327,500.

    A spokesman for the state system, Kenn Marshall, said Friday that he expects the selection to be made at a yet-to-be-announced public meeting, perhaps in the next two weeks.

    Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, is among those calling for the names of the finalists to be made public before then.

    So far, the search committee has shared the secret of who the finalists are among the 17 state system board members. The members include four state lawmakers, Corbett, his new education secretary and 11 gubernatorial appointments, including five who were last appointed by Corbett's Democratic predecessor, Ed Rendell.

    In addition to Corbett and the trustees, others were offered the opportunity in late July to meet with the three finalists: leaders of the unions that represent university employees, university presidents, representatives of state system university trustee councils and a handful of "business and community leaders,'' Marshall said.

    Marshall said he was unable to immediately identify them, but one person contacted by The Associated Press confirmed meeting with the finalists. David Patti, the president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Business Council, said those who were there signed confidentiality agreements.

    "We can't talk about anything,'' said Patti, who has been a supporter of Corbett's.

    In recent years, some of the nation's largest public university systems, such as in New York and North Carolina, did not announce finalists before their boards approved a candidate. Others, such as California, Texas and Georgia, announced a sole finalist a week or two before the candidate was approved.

    In 2011, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities announced two finalists two days before selecting one. Also in 2011, the University of Maine System announced four finalists two months before picking one.

    Michael Poliakoff, the vice president of policy for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group that pushes for strong trustee leadership, said the secrecy may be appropriate in some circumstances that encourage thinking outside the box.

    "But it is something that institutions need to watch carefully,'' Poliakoff said, "especially public institutions that need to benefit from robust public input.''
     
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