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With faculty anger surrounding several presidential searches, some point to search firms as the cause
In recent years one of the greatest points of contention between faculty members and their institutions’ governing boards has been over the board’s arguably most important function: the search for and the selection of a president to lead the institution.
Throughout higher education, campus stakeholders are increasingly disapproving of and speaking publicly about searches conducted by their institution. One of the more frequent complaints is the growing tendency of governing boards to conduct a “secret search.” In these cases, those involved in the process keep the names of any potential candidates under wraps until an appointee is announced, or in other, similar cases, boards announce a sole finalist who will meet with campus leaders and get to know the institution before being officially appointed.
However, as these instances and the faculty outrage that often comes with them become more frequent, some more recent searches where multiple candidates have been announced before the board votes have not been without significant controversy.
Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, has conducted research on executive searches at universities. She points to the increasing inclination of governing boards to hire an executive search firm as the cause for the uptick in secret searches. Research conducted by Wilde found that in 51 percent of the instances studied, confidentiality was the search firm's policy.
“We think these have appeared within the last 10 years, and most especially in the past five years. Much of the cause is the search firms themselves,” Wilde said. “They tell universities that the only way to get ‘the best’ president is to have a confidential or secret search. Along with this, those who serve on boards have little experience in conducting searches. So, having a search firm step in to tell them exactly how this should be done, and that they'll lead the efforts, is very appealing.”
Oftentimes, representatives of executive search firms argue that the only way to recruit talented candidates for the presidency is by holding a secret search, due to the fact that many candidates wouldn’t allow themselves to face public scrutiny before a selection. Wilde said there has been no research supporting that claim.
“The secret search is a recent phenomenon, really seen only in the past five to 10 years -- at most -- so we weren't looking for them,” Wilde said. “I will say that what little we've seen, we see no reason to believe that this leads to better presidents. Think of this -- until just recently, all presidential searches were open. To state that secret searches yield better presidents is to imply that all previous presidents were not good. That just doesn't make sense.”
Jan Greenwood is a veteran search consultant and partner and president of Greenwood/Asher & Associates Inc. She said the practice of keeping private the names of finalists in presidential searches began in the early '90s, when a president of a research university lost his job after he advised his alma mater about an open presidency.
"He was fired for looking at the other position, which technically he wasn't pursuing," Greenwood said. "He was doing his alma mater a favor."
Other similar outings and firings have occurred, she said, including to provosts and deans. In addition to making job candidates nervous, she said publicizing the names of finalists can jeopardize gifts to colleges, as donors have pulled back on a pledge when they hear the president is looking for another job. Likewise, if a public university president is up for another job, it can be harder for the institution to secure state funding.
"That hurts the university. And presidents don't want to hurt the university," said Greenwood.
Campuses Left With Questions
Frank LoMonte, the director of the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, said that in many cases where states have legal requirements to reveal finalists before selecting a president, the selection of a sole finalist meets the letter of the law but not the spirit.
“Unfortunately it seems that the prevailing structure these days is that the law specifies up to three or up to four finalists,” LoMonte said. “The growing practice has been to default to one finalist. Even though you would certainly read the intent of legislation like that to suggest that the public should see multiple finalists, that's not the way trustees and search firms are applying it. They’re gaming those laws to achieve the maximum secrecy.”
In Colorado, conservative former congressman Mark Kennedy was chosen as the sole finalist in the state system’s presidential search. Kennedy’s voting record on issues such as gay marriage became a contentious issue with many students and faculty, who called upon the Board of Regents to consider another candidate. The regents ended up selecting Kennedy, who had formerly served as president at the University of North Dakota, despite the outrage.
LoMonte said instances like this in which boards leave only one option often make stakeholders feel as though they were left out of the process, and they can sow distrust.
“If the community believes that your presidency was foisted on them by a bunch of remote business executives and headhunters, they are going to start off with skepticism and distrust,” LoMonte said. “Surely it’s better to find out early that the person you’ve identified was a mismatch with the campus culture.”
Other searches have ended with secrecy recently -- at Georgia Tech, the former president of George Mason University was announced as the sole finalist. At the University of Texas El Paso, the sole finalist to replace the esteemed president drew sharp criticisms from stakeholders.
Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said secrecy often benefits the potential candidates for the search and the search firm but is not beneficial to the institution itself.
“A process like this is very often going to be toxic for campus morale,” Poliakoff said. “It can also be rather toxic for board morale. Boards are too often distancing themselves from the engagement and the accountability for the choice. I think the utilization of search firms -- practices that come out of the corporate world -- has influenced the way boards think. They have tended to defer to the professionals rather than being integrally involved in every step of the search process. I think there has been a cultural shift that is not serving higher education well.”
Greenwood, however, said search firms themselves benefit from a search being open. A known candidate is vetted in a more public manner, by the news media and people on campus. And that scrutiny can help protect a search firm by preventing a bad hire or from not getting necessary background information on a job candidate to the hiring committee.
Open Search, Same Outrage
So far in 2019, there have been some high-profile examples of searches in which multiple finalists were revealed to the public that have ended in similarly divisive situations.
Most notably at the University of South Carolina, a candidate was chosen out of a group of four despite the fact there was highly public condemnation of the candidate from the students and the faculty. However, LoMonte said that the protests and outrage are exactly what an open search gives community members an opportunity to do.
“I mean, that’s democracy -- that’s exactly what democracy is supposed to look like,” LoMonte said. “You pick somebody unacceptable and the community loudly tells you to go pick somebody else. That’s exactly how the process ought to be working.”
However, South Carolina statistics professor Bethany Bell -- a critic of the South Carolina search process -- said even their open search left much to be desired. Each candidate was on campus for only one day, and the times of the Q&A sessions with candidates were announced very late and during a time frame when many students would be preparing for finals.
“Yes, there was an open forum for each candidate,” Bell said. “But was it as open as it could have been? Absolutely not.”
Bell also said it was rumored there was an unnamed female semifinalist for the position who had said she would withdraw if her name was made public. The final four candidates were all male.
Another open search, at Miami Dade College, led to faculty feeling like they had the rug pulled out from under them, as the college’s Board of Trustees opted to open a new search after already publicly announcing four candidates.
Wilde pointed to both the searches at Colorado and at South Carolina as examples of why it’s vital that faculty feel bought in to the process -- or else the process can quickly unravel.
“Probably the most important is lack of trust/support on the part of faculty, staff, students and the larger community,” Wilde said. “[Secret] searches also go against the most basic tenet of the university: shared governance.”
-- Paul Fain contributed to this article.Editorial Tags: FacultyIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: College: Georgia Institute of Technology-Main CampusMiami Dade CollegeUniversity of Colorado - System AdministrationUniversity of South CarolinaDisplay Promo Box:
A professor at the University of Kansas was indicted Wednesday on federal fraud charges for allegedly failing to disclose a full-time employment contract he held with a Chinese university while conducting research at Kansas funded by federal research contracts.
Feng (Franklin) Tao, a chemist and associate professor at Kansas's Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, is charged with one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000 on the wire fraud count, and up to 10 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000 on each of the counts of program fraud.
The indictment against Tao comes amid increasing concerns among federal research agencies and national security officials about alleged efforts by China to steal the fruits of U.S. taxpayer-funded scientific research. Federal scientific agencies have also raised concerns about undisclosed conflicts of commitment in which researchers hold a position with an overseas institution while they are receiving federal grants.
“Tao is alleged to have defrauded the U.S. government by unlawfully receiving federal grant money at the same time that he was employed and paid by a Chinese research university -- a fact that he hid from his university and federal agencies,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in a news release announcing the charges. “Any potential conflicts of commitment by a researcher must be disclosed as required by law and university policies.”
The indictment alleges that Tao failed to disclose that he signed a five-year contract in 2018 with China's Fuzhou University to be a Changjiang Scholar Distinguished Professor, a position that the contract describes as full-time. The Changjiang Scholar program is sponsored by the Chinese government to attract and recruit scientific talent.
The indictment alleges that Tao, who studies a surface chemical analysis technique known as ambient pressure X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, failed to disclose the Changjiang contract to Kansas and that he falsely certified to the university that he did not have any conflicts of interest.
"By not disclosing his position at Fuzhou, and certifying an absence of conflict, Tao was able to continue his employment with KU. His employment with KU allowed Tao to have continued access to U.S. government grant or contract funds, which included funds not only for research but also for Tao's salary," the indictment states.
Tao's research at KU was funded through two Department of Energy contracts and four National Science Foundation contracts. Tao is accused of fraudulently receiving more than $37,000 in salary paid for by DOE and NSF.
Court papers did not list a lawyer for Tao, and his published KU office number was not working Thursday. Messages sent Thursday to his KU email account, a LinkedIn account in his name and a phone number located via a public records search were not returned.
The University's Response
Douglas A. Girod, the university's chancellor, said in a statement about the fraud charges that Kansas "learned of this potential criminal activity this spring" and reported it to authorities. Tao has been placed on paid administrative leave.
In his statement, Girod cited a recent op-ed published in Inside Higher Ed by the presidents of the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities affirming the vital role Chinese and other international scholars play in America's research enterprise.
"At the same time, we also have been reminded of the importance of collaborating with federal law enforcement agencies," Girod said. "We remain vigilant in our own internal efforts to maintain the integrity and security of our research, including the research we undertake on behalf of federal research-granting agencies and, ultimately, U.S. taxpayers," Girod said. "Our Office of Global Operations and Security serves as an important resource for faculty and staff to help them conduct international work in a safe and secure way. The office works to manage and mitigate risk and protect intellectual property while synchronizing efforts related to international work, export compliance and security operations."
"After the formation of that office in summer 2018, we looked at our policies and procedures that regulate how we conduct research and exchange information in an increasingly interconnected world and considered ways they could be improved," Girod added.
Many if not most major research universities have recently begun revisiting their policies and protocols governing federal research grants and protection of intellectual property in response to the increased attention from federal law enforcement officials to academic espionage-related issues and the threat posed by China in particular.
The increased scrutiny has raised concerns in academe about whether ethnically Chinese scholars are being racially profiled and targeted for additional scrutiny. In a June statement, Massachusetts Institute of Technology president L. Rafael Reif reported that "faculty members, postdocs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinized, stigmatized and on edge -- because of their Chinese ethnicity alone."
As U.S.-China relations worsen, some have also raised concerns about whether scholars stand to be penalized for forms of scientific collaboration with China -- such as participation in the Chinese government's talent programs -- that were previously considered by many to be within the bounds of normal academic collaboration.
The former assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Counterintelligence Division, Bill Priestap, told a congressional panel last December that the talent programs "encourage theft of intellectual property from U.S. institutions."
Such programs, Priestap said, "offer competitive salaries, state-of-the-art research facilities and honorific titles, luring both Chinese overseas talent and foreign experts alike to bring their knowledge and experience to China, even if that means stealing proprietary information or violating export controls to do so."
"I have no firsthand knowledge of the case and no opinion about Franklin Tao’s innocence or guilt," said Robert Daly, an analyst who has been tracking these issues and is the director of the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. "I do know that Washington’s concern with China’s talent re-recruitment programs emerged only recently and that the new security issues involved are not fully understood by many American universities. One result of this disconnect is that American faculty of Chinese origin who 'didn’t get the memo' and continue to behave as they did before the issue appeared -- especially by taking undisclosed dual appointments at Chinese institutions -- may now be cast as criminals when they are merely guilty of moonlighting and careless paperwork."
"To protect faculty from unfounded accusations, it is essential that American universities orient their scholars about the FBI’s concerns and the need for full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest," Daly said. "To date, public reports don’t make clear that KU gave this vital information to Professor Tao. If he was not informed of these issues by his employer, 50 years in prison and a million-dollar fine seem like heavy penalties for a case in which no espionage or intellectual property theft is alleged."
KU's policies governing conflicts of interest can be found here, and the policy relating to conflict of time commitment appears to have last been updated in 2017.
"All KU employees are informed of their disclosure obligations during onboarding, and they are reminded each year during the annual reporting period," a university spokesman said. "Additionally, researchers are required to certify that their compliance reporting is up to date before submitting every proposal. Research integrity staff who facilitate conflict of interest reporting deliver in-person training to departments and centers upon request and through the annual research administration training program."GlobalEditorial Tags: Federal policyScience policyChinaResearch universitiesResearchImage Source: University of KansasImage Caption: Feng (Franklin) TaoIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: College: University of KansasDisplay Promo Box:
Germany, France and Japan have joined forces to fund research into “human-centered” artificial intelligence that aims to respect privacy and transparency, in the latest sign of a global split with the U.S. and China over the ethics of AI.
The three countries’ funding agencies have put out a joint call for research proposals, backed by an initial 7.4 million euros ($8.2 million). They stressed that they “share the same values” and warned that the technology has the potential to “violate individual privacy and right to informational self-determination.”
“We share the same beliefs and the same standards,” said Susanne Sangenstedt, a program officer at the German Research Foundation who is helping to oversee the collaboration.
The joint call has been under development since last year, she explained. Last November, the German Centers for Research and Innovation, a global network of universities and companies, organized an AI symposium in Japan involving ethicists and social scientists as well as more technically minded academics.
Results should, if possible, be released on an open-access basis, said Sangenstedt. The funding call asks academics to pitch projects on the “democratization” of AI, the “integrity of data for fairness” and “AI ethics to avoid gender/age segmentation,” as well as in areas such as machine learning, computer vision and data mining.
Germany, France and Japan are more concerned than some of their rivals that “if you let this [AI] go wild, it can cause profound damage to society,” said Holger Hoos, professor of machine learning at Leiden University. He said that he expected Canada to join the trio soon.
“AI is a game of critical mass. Japan can’t compete with China on AI, so they need allies. And the same goes for Canada,” he said.
China’s approach to AI was to put its development under the control of the “government-state,” he said. Meanwhile, the U.S. -- which has less of a developed national AI strategy than most other major economies -- has allowed AI development to be dominated by private technology companies, argued Hoos, one of the founders of the Confederation of Laboratories for Artificial Intelligence Research in Europe, which is pushing for the continent to remain competitive in AI research while leading on ethical, legal and social issues.
The “European way” was an attempt to find a “balance” between “government, industry and individual,” he said, an approach Japan supported, too.
Countries from Finland to India, plus the European Union, have devised AI strategies in the past few years, responding to predictions that the technology will upend the economy and society, for example displacing jobs, allowing algorithm-based sentencing for criminals and even unleashing “killer robots.”
This new alliance between Germany, France and Japan was “quite a logical and natural expansion of the E.U.’s position on AI,” explained Sophie-Charlotte Fischer, a researcher on AI and international relations at ETH Zurich.
By establishing itself as a world leader in “ethical” AI, the E.U. hoped to set standards for the rest of the world. “They have selected this as their niche,” she explained.
France’s AI strategy has called for the creation of interdisciplinary institutes involving social scientists and philosophers. The German strategy, released last year, established a plethora of observatories, dialogues and councils to make sure AI “serves the good of society.”
Japan has also used its presidency of the G20 group of nations to push for a common, global body to oversee the development of AI, Fischer added.
It was “unfair,” however, to say that China -- which in 2017 launched its own strategy, aiming to lead the world by 2030 -- was not thinking about ethics, she argued. In May, universities and companies signed up to the Beijing AI principles, which commit to “privacy, dignity, freedom, independence and rights.”
Whether China’s authoritarian government would heed these principles was “hard to tell,” she acknowledged, but “as a signal it’s quite noteworthy” and may indicate that Beijing was “open to dialogue about how AI is used.”
Still, “one advantage the E.U. has is that it’s a credible actor. It’s harder to believe when China puts these principles forward,” Fischer added.
For now, the joint funding from Germany, France and Japan is a pilot, explained Sangenstedt, “but possibly it will be the starting point for a discussion about regular calls.”GlobalEditorial Tags: International higher educationTimes Higher EdIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: Display Promo Box:
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