On Thursday the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that the state community college system had announced a “preferred candidate,” Jay Box, in its search for a new president.
The news came out of nowhere. In September, the chairman of the Kentucky Community & Technical College System Board of Trustees, P.G. Peeples, told the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting that 40 people had applied for the job. KCTCS refused to share the names of those applicants, but Peeples said that the finalists would “probably” be announced in October.
By October end, Peeples said the search committee was hopeful of “wrapping this up” in mid-November. Going by what he had told us earlier, we prepared for an announcement of the usual three finalists, each of whom would presumably pay an obligatory tour of a KCTCS campus and go through a full grilling by board members and faculty. That’s how many colleges, including the University of Kentucky, do it.
But as the Herald-Leader reported, the KCTCS board chose Box in a special meeting Tuesday night unattended by reporters. Not that the news media wouldn’t have been interested. Instead, KCTCS invoked an obscure passage in the state’s open meetings law that allowed its board to meet without giving prior notice. That passage required KCTCS to notify only those reporters who had submitted a letter asking to be notified of special meetings. Not expecting to be blindsided by a special meeting of such importance, we failed to write the necessary letter.
“They didn’t break the (open meetings) law, but they violated the spirit of the law,” Louisville attorney Jon Fleischaker told the Herald-Leader.
The news media missed the meeting, but not because of any lack of interest. The hiring of a president for a system with 72 campuses and 92,000 students is news in any playbook, and the newsworthiness of the event was heightened further by the controversial compensation paid to outgoing President Michael McCall. His $669,463 total compensation in 2013 made him the highest-paid community college system leader in the nation, even though KCTCS is 24th nationally in enrollment, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In the months leading up to Tuesday’s board meeting, the Kentucky Center of Investigative Reporting showed steady interest in the search process. Along with occasional calls to Peeples, who presided over the special meeting, we had peppered KCTCS’ public relations department for updates on the search.
Moreover, on the Monday before the meeting, we faxed an open records request to KCTCS’ legal department for the names and bios of the presidential finalists. Since they had three days to respond to the request, we didn’t expect an answer right away. But KCTCS knew that KyCIR—and many people in Kentucky—wanted more information about the search. It chose instead to conduct business with no reporters present.