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Search for new USM president is semi-transparent

If two key individuals involved in the search for a new president for the University of Southern Mississippi are to be understood, the process that will lead to the selection of that person will be an open one.

In a wide-ranging interview before the editorial board of the Hattiesburg American, Higher Education Commissioner Thomas C. Meredith and Robin Robinson, chairwoman of the search committee, said choosing a successor to outgoing President Shelby Thames will be “a very transparent process.”

“What we see is an opportunity to select the best qualified person to lead Southern Miss,” Robinson told the editorial board. “We’re looking for a good pool of candidates.”

Both Robinson and Meredith indicated optimism about the search, which is now getting into high gear with the nominating process. The university expects to have a new president by April 1 to succeed Thames, who will remain at the university doing research.

Transparency, however, based on Robinson’s and Meredith’s discussion with the editorial board, does not meet the threshold of openness this newspaper has called for in the past. Theirs appear to be more a matter of letting the public know where the process stands as it moves from one point to the next. It also seems to be more a matter of pre-emptive damage control by avoiding rumors and misinformation before they occur.

True openness would entail naming the top candidates when they reached that point in the interview process. That does not appear to be what’s in store for Mississippi taxpayers regarding the USM search.

Southern Miss, according to Meredith, provides a great opportunity for the right leader. We agree. He said the university needs to make sure that person is a great leader, a consensus builder and an entrepreneur.

Let us add this: The value of hiring a savvy individual able to navigate the many political waters he or she is sure to encounter cannot be underestimated. A skilled negotiator who knows how to traverse local, state and national politics brings an added quality to the high demands of a major university presidency.

Southern Miss should be able to parlay its recognizable name — its brand, for lack of a better word — to a nationwide audience of individuals both in public higher education and in the private sector who would be interested in leading a major university in Mississippi.

If there is a concern, both for the university and the public, it is what Meredith refers to as “a shift in the country” when it comes to candidates for these top-level jobs wanting to keep their applications secret. Meredith points out that many current college and university presidents who apply for another position don’t want their names made public out of fear of potential reprimands — including being fired — by their current employer.

It’s an understandable concern. No one wants to see someone who must continue to work in one environment subjected to undue pressure at that post simply because they sought out better opportunities elsewhere.

Still, all parties are best served when the public feels confident that it is being kept abreast of everything that is going through a process that is both transparent and open. At this particular juncture, the public has to take the IHL and its leadership at their word that they will make certain everything is, to use their words, “very straight-up.”