It’s not often a California State University presidency position becomes available.

In the last five years, just 17 spots in the 23-campus system have incurred imminent vacancies. But now there's a new one: Cal State Bakersfield’s sitting president, Horace Mitchell, recently announced he would retire in June. Mitchell has held his post for 13 years.

So when a search committee that included CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White convened in Bakersfield Monday for what was the only public portion of the selection process, organizers naturally expected a substantial turnout.

“Choosing a new president is, of course, the most important job we do,” said CSU trustee and search committee chair John Nilon, who graduated from CSUB in 1979 before becoming Kern County Administrative Officer, a post he left in January.

But the CSUB forum yielded just a handful of people, leaving Dore Theatre, which seats 500, virtually barren. Just a dozen people spoke about what they want in a future president.

Almost pleading with the audience, White asked again and again for more participation.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got your thoughts jotted down or thought through,” he said. “What’s on your mind? If you had the wand for the day and could get things done, what would you do?”

There were few takers, and just a half-hour into a public forum that was supposed to have lasted two hours, the meeting was adjourned.

The forum, however, was the only opportunity for the public to tell committee members who will select the new president what qualities they’re looking for. That’s because everything about the search process – from applicants' names to resumes and curriculum vitae – will be shrouded from the public. 

“It is not secret and not closed,” White said, by way of clarification. “It’s confidential.”

The search is being conducted in such a way as to attract as many qualified applicants as possible, White said.

“Those who are most accomplished and fully qualified to be the next president here, all of them are doing something else today. They’re fully employed. They may be sitting presidents somewhere in the United States, or quite frankly, internationally,” White said.

In an open selection process, candidates who apply but are rejected typically return to their home campuses to “chilling welcomes,” White said. So, instead of risking such backlash, many candidates don’t apply for positions in open-search situations, White said.

“We don’t want to close any doors prematurely on who gets into our pool. The first question many people will ask is this: We may be interested, but is this going to be done in confidence, or not? The very best people, if they know their identity is exposed prematurely, they say ‘thanks, but no thanks. I can’t afford the risk.’”

That didn’t stop several CSUB faculty members, however, from criticizing the process. One faculty member said that the confidential process ran counter to democratic principles taught at the university. Assistant Professor of Economics Richard Gearheart questioned whether they would be informed of search criteria to determine how applicants are weeded out of the process “to make sure our voices are being heard, rather than being dismissed.”

Meanwhile, Mohammed Cook, a CSUB student who serves on the Associated Students Incorporated, said he doesn’t see it as a problem.

“I don’t tell my current girlfriend who my next girlfriend is,” he said, eliciting chuckles from the panel.

Those who did speak out during the forum called for committee members to focus on finding a president who would dedicate themselves to scholarship, academic excellence, fundraise for the university and put a greater emphasis on multiple disciplines and transfer students.

“I hope our future president continues to inspire excellence, will be a scholar and encourage scholarship and excellence at the university for students and faculty,” said Jacquelyn Kegley, a longtime CSUB professor of philosophy and religious studies. “I also hope our new president will make a real effort to learn our community.”

Renee Martin, a CSUB office worker, said she’s also looking for community engagement from a president.

“He needs to be good at raising money and being part of the community, but Dr. Mitchell is also great at going to basketball games, going to student events and being available to everyone all the time,” Martin said. “I feel like if I were to see him, I’d think he knew my name because he always takes the time to say ‘Hello,’ shake my hand and ask ‘How are you doing?’”

The audience went quiet again, and the microphones went quiet.

Exasperated by a lack of involvement, Nilon gazed out at the theatre: “OK,” he said. “What don’t you want?”

One woman hollered from her seat: “Counseling sessions for faculty and students because Dr. Mitchell is leaving.”

Committee members will review candidate applications in February then hold interviews in March before they make a final selection in the spring.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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