Two finalists are hoping to win over the campus community at Oregon State University and become the institution’s next leader. But first, they’re getting a chance to interact with students, staff and faculty members — something that didn’t happen in the last presidential search process.
Oregon’s largest public university hosted the two presidential hopefuls — Jayathi Murthy and Charles Martinez — on campus this week for interviews with the OSU Board of Trustees and multiple forums open to the public.
Murthy and Martinez are competing to fill the position left by OSU’s previous president, F. King Alexander. Alexander resigned last year after facing increasing pressure from the campus community when details came to light of mishandled sexual misconduct allegations at the institution he previously led. For the last year, the vice president of OSU’s Cascades campus, Becky Johnson, has served as interim president.
Alexander was hired using a closed, confidential search process, where candidates’ names were not made public beforehand and finalists did not have public visits on campus to meet with students, staff and faculty.
The blowback from the campus community in reaction to Alexander’s ousting last year extended to the process behind his initial hiring. The sweeping criticism led OSU’s Board of Trustees to do things differently this time around, such as letting the public interact with finalists and inquire about their approach to leading the institution.
Campus community members and the finalists themselves did not shy away from addressing the situation that led to the job opening.
“I know you’ve had some controversy,” said Martinez during a public forum Monday. He’s currently the dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.
Before his time in Texas, Martinez spent roughly two decades in Oregon, holding various positions at the University of Oregon and serving on the Eugene School Board, as well as on the State Board of Education.
“The first thing that a president needs to do here is acknowledge the historical context,” Martinez said when asked how he would support the prevention of gender-based violence. “There is history of sexual violence that has been unaddressed. There’s challenges in the discourse about decisions that the campus has made, like every campus, that leads to vulnerability and lack of trust. … The recent departure of the past president in many ways brought forth this long history.”
Murthy, the first woman to become dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of California Los Angeles, received the same question during one of her public forums Tuesday.
“I do know that this last year, you’ve obviously encountered a transition here that is tied to SVSH [sexual violence and sexual harassment] issues,” Murthy said. “I’m keenly aware that there’s a great deal of campus healing that needs to happen around that and I would be working very hard to facilitate that and to build lines of trust in our administration again as we try to make that next leap.”
Along with discussing immediate issues related to trust and campus climate leftover from the previous president’s departure, the finalists talked about wide-ranging challenges facing potential leaders of OSU and other higher ed institutions, including student retention, support for students of color, improving research opportunities and shared governance.
Although there has been some skepticism about just how much community participation and engagement there would be in the presidential search process, members of the campus community appear to appreciate the opportunity to engage with the finalists ahead of the trustees’ final hiring decision. Kathleen Stanley, president of the faculty union, United Academics of OSU, was among those who felt the search had been “opaque” to begin with.
“The Board has provided several opportunities to meet with the candidates and ask questions,” Stanley told OPB. “Both candidates have strong backgrounds which makes the open forums very important in assessing their candidacies.”
OSU’s trustees may have a difficult decision ahead of them, as they’re faced with finalists who over the course of several hours of community meetings appeared to be more similar than different.
Both Martinez and Murthy have experience in science and research — Martinez in psychology and Murthy in mechanical engineering. Both are deans at large universities.
Both finalists are also people of color, and hiring either of them would be a “historical first” for the university, Stanley said, “one which we believe signals a welcome move toward greater diversity and inclusion.”
Along with attending the public meetings with the candidates, the board of trustees has encouraged campus community members to fill out a survey evaluating the finalists.
“We’re gratified that the Board of Trustees listened to the university community about the importance of a more transparent search when choosing a new president,” Stanley said. “... We, and the other employee unions, hope to establish a good working relationship with the new president, whomever they may be.”
The OSU Board of Trustees anticipates selecting the institution’s next president during the first week of June.