Recommendation on Salem State University Presidential Appointment

Under current guidelines, the Commissioner of Higher Education is instructed to provide recommendations to you regarding the selection of community college and state university presidents. I am prepared to do so today with regard to the presidency of Salem State University, but please allow me to begin by offering some context on the particulars of this search and selection process, which I think will be helpful to both members of the Board and those in attendance.

I want to thank members of the Salem Board for their hard work in this search; having been involved in many searches myself, I know firsthand that the process is seldom easy. I also want to thank members of the Salem community and other concerned citizens who took time to prepare thoughtful testimony for the Board’s consideration today.

Let me make clear at the outset that the work of the Salem State search committee was fully consistent with the guidelines issued by the BHE in June 2013.  Those guidelines were intended to ensure a thorough and professional search and also to allow the BHE and DHE to be active partners with campus boards in this critically important process.  In addition to setting out parameters, which Salem State did follow in this case, the DHE also had a member of its senior staff participate on the Search Committee.  As Commissioner, I reviewed and approved the campus profile that laid out the minimum qualifications for the position, and reviewed the list of semi-finalists to ensure the diversity of the candidate pool. Secretary Peyser and I interviewed all three finalists. I shared my general impressions of the candidates with the Chair of the Salem State Board – not my recommendation, merely my impressions – as stipulated in the guidelines.  I believe that all three finalists chosen in this search were fully qualified, each a compelling candidate in his or her own way.

Salem State’s Board of Trustees met to consider the qualifications of the finalists on May 24. On a 7 to 3 vote, the Board chose to recommend John Keenan as the next President of Salem State University. As most of you know, this was a very challenging decision for the Board. In fact, the Board initially divided exactly equally with five votes for Mr. Keenan and five votes for another candidate. It is my personal observation that there were very sound reasons to support at least two of the three candidates, if not all three. There was also a great deal of pressure on Board members stemming from several timely issues facing this and other institutions.

Regarding one particular aspect of this dynamic – specifically, the local versus the external candidate – I do want to call the Board’s attention to some progress made to expand and diversify the ranks of our campus leadership. During my tenure as Commissioner, since July 1, 2015, we have completed nine presidential searches. All nine new presidents previously served in academic institutions located out of state and came with strong academic credentials.  Further, four of those nine have increased diversity among our cohort of presidents by gender (two female presidents succeeding male predecessors) and ethnicity (two new Latino presidents succeeding white predecessors).  Overall, these results suggest that our progress has been positive in the aggregate. I believe we must continue to do everything possible to bring fresh perspectives and diverse leaders into the fold. At the same time, I do need to point out that a few of our current presidents who did not come from the traditional academic ranks have turned out to be exceptional campus leaders.

So this is not an easy matter to decide, by any means. I am committed to working closely with the new president of Salem State University. But it is important to point out three challenges that will require immediate attention.

First, from the testimony and board discussions during this process it is clear to me that the campus community is quite divided. The incoming president will need to build bridges and earn the confidence and trust of campus stakeholders.

Second, the fact that the dissenting voices on the Salem State Board were all African-American, and that one was the student member, is troubling to me. It should give us all pause to see a Board vote take place along strictly racial lines. A more racially diverse board would have not necessarily have led to a different outcome.  However, my experience has been that greater diversity leads to more effective decision making overall. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure that the composition of our Boards of Trustees is better aligned with the demographic changes occurring on our campuses.

Finally, while Salem State University touts itself as an up and coming Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), I remind the campus leadership that HSI status is not simply a numbers game, but needs to reflect a welcoming and inclusive campus. I worry that Latino students may read from this outcome that they are less welcome here than they anticipated.

Chairman Gabrieli intends to propose that the Board review our guidelines and process.  Given both issues raised in this context as well as constructive suggestions he and I have received from those who have participated in recent searches and appointments, a thorough review of existing policies and practices by the BHE seems to be in order.  I support the Chair’s recommendation on this proposal.

In closing, given the Salem State Board’s adherence to our guidelines and also given the extent of my authority in this matter, it is the Commissioner’s recommendation that the BHE approve the Salem State Trustees’ nomination of Mr. Keenan to be their next President.

Nothing in my comments is intended to limit the discussion to be held among BHE members.  But I do hope my remarks help all of you in your thinking and in making your decision today.