Imagine watching a marathon you helped sponsor - blindfolded. You are eager to know who is leading and how the race strategy is shaping up. But you can't see a thing. You assume contestants are fit and competing fairly, yet have no idea who is running in the lead pack or how the strategy is shaping up.
It is a frustrating feeling, akin to the process of selecting a new University of Utah president, a just-concluded endurance event unto itself that was sponsored by all of us as taxpayers.After 11 months of conducting this contest in the dark, Dr. James Bernard Machen was named to the post Friday in a hastily called briefing.
He appears to be a fine choice with impressive academic, medical and even military credentials. Concerns about the appointment process and sudden announcement without proper public notice linger, however.
The Board of Regents argues that the search process must remain closed. The primary fear is that top candidates will be frightened off if their current colleagues, constituencies and employers know they are considering another job.
That has not proven to be the case in other states. There is no reason to think Utah is any different.
Tossing one's hat into the ring at that lofty level is not like firing off 25 resumes in a desperate attempt to escape unpleasant work conditions. It is usually done thoughtfully - often by invitation from a search committee and/or a "head hunter" - and with acknowledgment there are pros and cons to carefully consider.
Prior to the U.'s action, the most recent large institution to hire a president, Mississippi State University, advertised the job in June and took four months to fill it. Finalists had their names and biographies published on the school's Web site and participated in four days of on-campus interviews with constituency groups.
That type of approach could work in Utah as well. Publishing names of the finalists - certainly not all applicants - would protect the public's interest and would ensure a fair and unbiased search process was being followed.
We cannot imagine that finalists for the University of Utah presidency would have been compromised personally or professionally by being touted as top candidates for the job. In fact, just the opposite would likely be true. Their stature is enhanced by their consideration. It is an immense compliment to be one of the final few candidates for such a prestigious post.
In this case, Machen, a dentist and educational psychologist, rose to the top of the 125-person applicant pool with his impressive credentials. At age 53, he becomes the university's 13th president, succeeding Arthur K. Smith. He is most recently the provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at the University of Michigan and comes to the U. with high praise for his administrative ability.
Machen also was a major in the U.S. Army and served at the U.S. Army Institute of Dental Research at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He earned a doctorate in educational psychology and a master's in pediatric dentistry at the University of Iowa. His doctorate in dental science is from St. Louis University, and he studied pre-dentistry at Vanderbilt University.
Machen's broad background should serve him well at the diverse U., with its medical center and its relationship with Fort Douglas. His appointment is a boon to the state, though the process needs improvement.