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Kentucky Community College Top Job Draws 40 Applicants. (Just Don't Ask Who.)

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Sometime after Nov. 1, the Kentucky Community & Technical College System will name a new president to succeed the retiring Michael McCall. But only a group of insiders knows who’s in the running.The application deadline passed nearly two months ago, on July 25. With the help of an outside search agency, the Association of Community College Trustees, a 16-person search committee expects to narrow the field of applicants to just a few finalists next month. KCTCS Chairman P.G. Peeples, co-chairman of the search committee, said he is pleased with the progress being made.“We had a very good response, a very good field, and I expected that because of the quality of the system,” he said. “The system is well-respected across the country and, subsequently, I think there are people out there who would really want to work for and be part of this system.”If taxpayers, KCTCS faculty and staff and Kentucky higher-education watchers want to know who applied for the job, however, they’ll be disappointed. In response to a public records request from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, KCTCS General Counsel J. Campbell Cantrill III wrote that “all candidate information is currently exempt from disclosure.”Peeples said 40 people have “completed the application process.” That number, he added, will be lower by week’s end.“We’re committed to bringing in a leader that’s commensurate with the quality and reputation of the system,” he said.Kentucky law upholds the secrecy of searches for people to fill public jobs, regardless of their importance. It applies to searches for police chiefs, city managers and university presidents on down. The candidates’ names and resumes are exempt from the state’s public records law because, as the law says, their disclosure “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”Hogwash, says Paul Cummins, a rural Corbin resident who served on the Whitley County school board from 1982 to 1986. He unsuccessfully challenged the secrecy of a schools superintendent search in 2010. He was likewise dismayed by the secrecy of the KCTCS president search.“It’s the people that’s paying those tuitions that’s paying for him, so they should know who all put in for it and what their qualifications were — and if the committee hired the right person,” Cummins said. “Then you don’t feel like it’s a home-cooked thing or a political situation.”Many states allow public job searches to be done behind closed doors.“It varies from state to state,” said Krisha Creal, executive assistant to the president of R. William Funk & Associates, a higher education executive search firm in Dallas. “Half of them do require disclosure — we call them open records states — and the other half are confidential until the finalists are invited to campus.”State law required the University of Tennessee to release the names of 69 applicants for its president’s job in 2010, and a state judge ordered Louisiana State University to name the 35 candidates for its presidency in 2013. Ohio law required the University of Akron in March to disclose the names of 19 people seeking its top job, including former Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel.Other states, like Connecticut, require only the disclosure of finalists. Some have laws that are more nuanced, said Jim McCormick, a senior consultant for AGB Search, an arm of the Association of Governing Boards in Washington, D.C.“I’m doing a search for a provost for the community college in Michigan, and that doesn’t have to be made public. If it were the president, it would have to be,” he said.In June 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that a growing number of public colleges were withholding the names of their presidential candidates, just as private colleges do. Many would-be candidates, it found, were reluctant or unwilling to apply if their names were made public. Of those who did, one college president was fired for looking elsewhere. And one college lost a $10 million bequest because an alumnus questioned the dedication of the president for showing interest in another job.Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway sided with privacy concerns when he signed an October 2010 opinion upholding the Whitley County School District’s decision not to release the names of superintendent candidates to Cummins.“Although the public’s interest in insuring that the best qualified applicant is selected cannot be understated, the courts have recognized that the interest is not always served by disclosure of application materials,”the opinion states.Peebles said that KCTCS will not name a successor to McCall until after the annual President’s Gala on Nov. 1.The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reportingtook an in-depth look at McCallon May 8 after learning that the KCTCS Board of Trustees had approved giving him a one-year contract to serve as president emeritus at his final base salary. His base pay is $324,321. After other forms of compensation, including a $90,000 annual housing allowance and a $43,000 annual car allowance, he made $641,699 in 2013.This story was reported by Louisville Public Media's Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

James McNair is a veteran investigative reporter who specializes in business and finance issues.