The University of Oregon has a new provost, biology professor Patrick Phillips, whose appointment was announced Wednesday by President Michael Schill.
We wish him well as he steps into the role , one in which he will have a profound influence.
At the UO, the provost has responsibility for more than three-fourths of the university’s general fund as he university’s top academic officer. Phillips’ resulting impact will be felt throughout the community, from the operation of such institutions as the Oregon Bach Festival and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art to the rippling effects of adding or reducing university faculty and staff.
Phillips possesses an impressive academic and administrative resume. In announcing the new provost, Schill said he emerged "from a pool of tremendously strong internal candidates."
That may well be true, but there is no way to know. Schill did not identify the other finalists or their qualifications. In fact, it was only after the Register-Guard published a story which questioned the secrecy of the process that the university revealed there were three finalists from a field of five candidates.
Several groups, totaling about 75 people, were invited to meet with the finalists. But the entire process was largely shrouded from public view.
That should concern the public, given UO’s status as a public university, its relationship with the community and the consequential role held by the provost.
That secrecy should equally disturb the UO staff and faculty, because a closed-door hiring process sets the absolutely wrong tone for the incoming provost and goes against what should be the university’s commitment to openness and transparency.
By eschewing openness, Schill repeated the flawed process employed by the UO Board of Trustees in hiring him as president four years ago. As we noted at the time, that secrecy was in sharp contrast to the University of Wisconsin’s search for a new chancellor a couple of years earlier, in which Schill was among the four finalists — all publicly identified and publicly interviewed.
UO Provost Jayanth Banavar is leaving July 1 after only two years in the job, which also raises questions, and Schill decided to seek a successor from within the current ranks of the UO. Schill cited the need to move quickly on a permanent appointment, forgoing the more-common approach of naming an interim provost while conducting a national search.
There are pluses and minuses to Schill’s approach. It is good that the UO had outstanding tenured faculty members, such as Phillips, who would be well-qualified. Those persons would be intimately familiar with the university’s current culture, operations and aspirations. However, a national search can result in hiring someone with new ideas and varying experiences that challenge the status quo. In any case, a national search shows how the successful candidate stacks up against others.
So does a public process, which allows people to evaluate the candidates and raise questions that otherwise might go unasked.
We hope Phillips becomes an outstanding provost, despite the flawed process by which he arrived at that office.
Still, it may be time for legislators to pass a law requiring that all searches for top university officials be conducted publicly.