Clemson Officials Keeping Presidental List Secret

November 15, 2013

Investigative Reports

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clemson“The selection of a president is the single most important responsibility of the board.”

So said David Wilkins, chairman of the Clemson University Board of Trustees on April 17, the day after longtime President Jim Barker announced his retirement.

On Monday, the 124-year-old Upstate research university announced that its next leader would be Jim Clements, president of West Virginia University since 2009. Clements is expected to take over as Clemson’s 15th president in January.

What Clemson officials have kept secret, however, is who the finalists were for the position. There were 83 applicants, officials said Monday, though they declined to name the finalists.

Barker, who has served 14 years as Clemson’s president, receives a salary of $471,213, split between state and university foundation funds, according to media reports. Clements reportedly will receive $775,000 annually – the same salary he currently receives at WVU, which has a student enrollment of about 29,500, approximately 8,700 more compared to Clemson.

In an interview Thursday with The Nerve, Wilkins, the former S.C. House speaker and U.S. ambassador to Canada, declined to immediately identify the finalists for Barker’s seat, though he added, “That is going to be released.”

The Nerve on Wednesday submitted a request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act to Clemson, asking that it release a list of the final group of candidates and related employment-search records, along with meeting notices and minutes of the university’s presidential search committee, by the end of Thursday afternoon.

The requested documents were not released by publication of this story; in a written response Wednesday, university spokeswoman Cathy Sams acknowledged receiving the FOIA request and said she would “follow up.” By law, Clemson has 15 business days, excluding holidays, to disclose whether the requested records are available, though there is no statutory deadline to produce the materials.

Under the FOIA, employment-search documents exclude medical records, income tax returns and the candidate’s Social Security number.

Asked why Clemson’s presidential search committee, made up of Wilkins – though he said he was a non-voting member – six other board of trustees members, and the faculty Senate president, has not publicly revealed the finalists for the president’s position, Wilkins replied:  “We put a lot of emphasis on the person we did select. … I don’t know if anyone asked to release that (the finalist list).”

Committee Chairman Smyth McKissick did not respond to a phone message Thursday from The Nerveseeking comment.

Under the FOIA (Section 30-4-40(a)(13) of the S.C. Code of Laws), employment-search materials “relating to not fewer than the final three applicants under consideration for a position” are considered public records.

The S.C. Supreme Court in a 2007 ruling involving a superintendent search in Spartanburg County School District 7 said disclosure of employment-search records is required for the “final pool of applicants comprised of at least three people,” even if there are less than three designated finalists.

But a weakness of the state’s FOIA is that while it requires disclosure upon request, it doesn’t mandate that public bodies automatically release information at any point during the search process. In effect, the law encourages agencies to adopt a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy, which prevents the public from comparing candidates for a position before it is filled.

“It’s not self-executing; someone has to ask for the public materials,” said Jay Bender, a University of South Carolina law professor and the attorney for the South Carolina Press Association, when contacted Wednesday. The Nerve is an associate member of the Press Association.

Bill Rogers, the association’s executive director, told The Nerve on Wednesday that Clemson officials should have released the identities of the finalists before Monday’s announcement of Clements’ hiring.

“The real problem is that the public has no real input in the selection process,” Rogers said.

Clemson created a separate page on its website for the presidential search. That site indicates the committee met three times – once each in April, May and September – and held an open forum in June with Clemson faculty, staff and students.

At the June event, William Funk told participants that his Dallas consulting firm, which was hired to assist the search committee, would narrow the field of applicants to six to 10 for the committee to interview, and that the committee would choose three or four from that group for the full board of trustees to consider, according to a Greenville News story. Nominations for the president’s position were due by Aug. 31.

The search committee met in secret another time in May in Columbia, and also met in October for four hours behind closed doors at a hotel four miles from the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, declining afterward to say whether any candidates were interviewed, according to The Greenville News.

Other media reported that the committee met in secret, including during part of the initial April organization meeting, held at the Greenville office of the Nelson Mullins law firm, where Wilkins is a partner.

Wilkins told The Nerve that the committee met “four to six” times, adding, “Some of those times, they were done in executive session.” He also said Clements was offered the job “less than a week” before Monday’s announcement.

Wilkins said public notices of the committee meetings were done in advance in compliance with the state’s open-meetings law. He also said he is “assuming” that minutes of the meetings have been completed, though no committee minutes were posted by publication of this story on the university’s web page for the presidential search.

Clemson posts meeting minutes of the full board of trustees on its website, though none of the listed minutes since April mentions anything about the presidential search. The board on Monday approved Clements’ hiring, according to a university release.

“I’m very proud of our process,” Wilkins told The Nerve. “I’m convinced we got the right person.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.