The King’s Ransom: Why some faculty think Scarborough is hand-picking (and overpaying) his unqualified friends to lead U of Akron
UA Prof: ‘No hope that this was going to be a fair search’
by Chris Horne
This is the story of how an administrator from the University of Toledo with a vagabond work history and weak academic record was voted “unacceptable” as a candidate by six of the 11 voting members of a search committee but still came out on top when University of Akron President Scott Scarborough announced his selection. August 1, Dr. Lakeesha Ransom started work as the university’s new vice provost and the dean of the Honors College, receiving a compensation package almost $98,000 higher than her predecessor, a patent-holding researcher who founded and led the college for 15 years and began his post-interview evaluation of her with “This candidate is not a good fit for the Honors College.”
Only one person, Dr. Kathy Liszka, was willing to use her name with this story, but a few faculty members on the search committee spoke to The Devil Strip about their experiences. They asked for anonymity, including tenured faculty, because they fear retaliation from the administration who, they say, could “make our lives hell.” Though Liszka is the only attributed source, we are only publishing the parts of her story that are either confirmed by multiple sources or by the emails and documents released by the university. While we’ve received these materials, The Devil Strip is still awaiting the university’s response to the questions raised by this account of the Honors College dean hiring. We will update as necessary.
The search committee met for the first time on November 25, 2014. It was a quick meeting and started with a bang.
Vice Provost Dr. Rex Ramsier told the committee Scarborough did not want the final candidates ranked. Liszka asked why and says Ramsier “went on a rant, an angry rant. I wasn’t even sure what he was saying because he was angry.”
Then it got quiet and she says Paul Herold, Scarborough’s special assistant, spoke up and calmly explained, “The President does not want a ranking in case he should choose a candidate that is not number one in our (the committee’s) selection, and if one of the other candidates, who wasn’t selected, who did rank number one, requested the public documents and found that, they might sue or question why they weren’t selected if they were ranked first.”
In the same meeting, Herold presented the ad for the job listing. Typically, someone pens a draft and the committee workshops it. Sometimes they sit on it a while then discuss once more before posting it. But when feedback started coming in, Herold stopped them, saying the ad had been sent out two hours earlier.
“There was stunned silence,” Liszka says. “It was a done deal. They encouraged us to share the ad with anyone who might be interested in the job.”
But the pool of candidates that December didn’t satisfy the committee, or at least didn’t satisfy Ramsier, who some on the committee say shot down every candidate proposed for a phone interview. Without speaking to a single candidate, they effectively closed the search. Ransom was not one of the applicants.
According to emails released by the university to The Devil Strip, the committee reviewed 47 candidates in December and eliminated 44 from consideration. Three were carried forward: T.J. Arrant, Jeffery Chamberlain and Douglas Robinson. They received 19 more applications before releasing an updated version of the ad on April 1.
Déjà vu all over again
“I had no hope this was going to be a fair search,” Liszka says.
A full professor of computer science who specializes in online security issues, says she had been down this road before. About 15 years ago, when she was a newly tenured professor, she was asked to join the search committee that ultimately hired Thomas Gaylord to be the university’s information and technology chief. When the committee was told not to rank the candidates, she says she knew the fix was in. Gaylord was someone it seemed former UA President Luis Proenza wanted to hire so she says “he was smart about it” and wrote the job ad so specifically that “almost no one else in the world” would be able to fit it. In the end, Gaylord was investigated by the Inspector General and fired by Proenza for misspent funds and accepting gifts from vendors.
It isn’t that Liszka fears this specific history will repeat itself, but she does think the university made the kind of mistake that could take the shine off its academic crown jewel.
“I wouldn’t talk if she wasn’t such a bad candidate,” Liszka says.
The University of Akron’s Honors College was designed for its best and brightest undergraduates. It lives at the heart of UA’s best efforts to attract the kinds of high-performing students who raise the academic profile of the university. The next dean would ideally be a strong academic who can set an example and lead; a solid recruiter to attract the best; and a resilient fundraiser to help build the college’s future.
Ransom’s candidacy was riddled with question marks from the beginning. She didn’t include a cover letter with her curriculum vitae. More than one committee member said they tossed out any application without a cover letter, including hers, just to narrow the field. After all, this is for the Dean of Akron’s Honors College. It’s important. What serious candidate would skip that step?
When she “fell into” the final round, those concerns grew louder after her poor performance in interviews. She confessed to hiding in the bathroom at her first fundraising event. She struggled to express why she was interested in this position after taking Toledo’s dean job in only 2013. In person, her engaging personality and energy couldn’t completely cover for her limited experience as an academic, having taught just seven classes and listing only 10 total papers and presentations on her CV—not including her doctoral dissertation, which she defended in 2007 but left off her vita. She claimed to be the founding dean of Toledo’s Jesup Scott Honors College, but it started in 1963 and only experienced a “rebranding” under her watch, a move driven by Toledo’s former provost, Scott Scarborough.
As the Toledo Blade reported at the time of her Akron hire, “Ms. Ransom worked with a consulting firm before she was hired by UT in February, 2013, as part of an effort championed by Mr. Scarborough to rebrand and expand Toledo’s honors program.”
Her work history is full of sudden changes. After working in management at Best Buy corporate headquarters, a couple of internships, an unpaid stint as a reagent for the University of Minnesota and 13 years as a consultant, she leapt straight from a visiting professor position at Assumption University in Thailand to the deanship at the University of Toledo. In evaluations shared with the committee, some Honors College students who liked her personality were nonetheless apprehensive about her potential commitment to Akron because she seemed to hop jobs every three or four years.
There’s another way to look at it.
In an email suggesting changes to a summary of the group’s opinions, Dr. Jon Miller, who Ramsier requested Herold add to the search committee a day before the first meeting, wrote, “…her background in business contextualizes the fact that she has changed jobs often. This is much more common and even expected in the business world, I think, than it is among people rising up through the academic ranks as faculty. It is significant in that it suggests that the candidate might be more focussed* on achieving short-term results while looking to move onto another, better job. It is does not reflect poorly on her, however, as someone with a background outside academia.”
*While commonly spelled in the US with one S, it is not incorrect to use two Ss. I regret using the [sic] to infer it was wrong. Apologies to Dr. Miller. – Chris H.
There was a sudden rush in late March to get a new version of the job ad out, gather up candidates and vet them in the hopes of bringing them to campus in May. This time, the committee worked some on the new ad before it was posted on April 1, and the difference shows.
Where the first version had been light on details and full of vague, jargon-y personality-based attributes, like “Is a catalyst, comfortable leading change and empowering others,” the new one was much more specific.
- Enhance and oversee an exceptional curriculum and related academic opportunities that prepare Honors College graduates to excel in their chosen paths;
- Recruit and retain an Honors College student cohort that is diverse in all aspects and includes international representation;
- Create innovative and unique experiential learning and co-curricular programs that can distinguish Honors College graduates and that evolve to meet the changing needs of students and the global community; and
- Employ strategies to broaden and enhance the robustness of undergraduate student research projects within the Honors College and throughout the university.
In her experience, Liszka says most committees make phone interviews to promising candidates and then winnow down the prospects until they could put together a top three list. On this search committee, Ramsier grabbed a note pad and asked each member for their top ten choices, jotting down names and tallying hash marks for each mention, based solely on their CVs.
The committee members that spoke with The Devil Strip each independently said Ransom was not in most of these individual top ten lists and didn’t make the collective’s top five on the first pass. That changed when Ramsier looked at his pad and said something like, “Oh, I tallied that wrong.”
“One candidate fell out of the top five and Ransom fell on,” Liszka says.
Then, she moved up to the 4 spot but they were only inviting the top three choices and on second look, Ramsier noted the third candidate was out of the country. No way to bring that one to Akron next week so… Dr. Lakeesha Ransom received an invitation to do a job talk, which she delivered on May 7, the second of the three candidates to address whichever faculty members and students could find the time during finals.
“[At the start] it was inconceivable the search was going to go into the middle of May,” Liszka says.
But it did and it was part of the plan.
In an email dated April 3, Herold writes Ramsier and Clark to make plans for their meeting at the end of that month. Herold writes, “At that time, we need to decide next steps with the understanding that we either need to move directly to campus visits or hold campus visits after the spring semester has ended. Regardless, we need to have three finalists recommended to the president and provost by June 1.”
Feels like the first time
Then-retiring Honors College dean, Dr. Dale Mugler, interviewed Ransom and Cooke, sending separate evaluations of each. For Chamberlain, a holdover from the first pool, Mugler attached a report from Honors College staff and students. The comments he shared were glowing for Cooke (“the most highly qualified candidate interviewed this past week”); lukewarm for Chamberlain (“an acceptable candidate”); and this for Ransom: “…her academic background is not in the same league as the other candidates. Students in the Honors College need leadership that has an academic background that they respect.”
Though they weren’t allowed to officially rank the candidates, each of the committee members who spoke with The Devil Strip kept a mental list. All but one, who had placed Chamberlain highest, put Cooke at the top. One committee member said the tenor after the interviews changed, that there was a stronger current against Ransom than for any other particular candidate.
The exception was Ramsier. He seemed to some in the group to be pushing for Ransom in a way no one else was, even among those who were accepting of her. The group had met individually with each candidate over breakfast, and during those interviews, multiple committee members said Ramsier was cold and “borderline rude” to Cooke and Chamberlain. But when Ransom arrived “[i]t was like they were on a first date.” Someone said Ramsier giggled once as she spoke to him.
Mugler’s evaluations were forwarded to the committee by Dr. Dimitria Gatzia, a member of the group. It included an earlier email from Mugler to Gatzia and Liszka that read, “As of today, I will have sent the attached three evaluations to Paul Herold. I thought it would be good for you to have copies of these as well.”
Ramsier forwarded the exchange to Herold with two, short sentences: “Collusion. I will handle it.”
On May 13, as members of the committee fired off suggestions for ways to summarize their discussion about the three candidates, Herold sent Clark his own version of the summary and suggested she “accept all changes so my name is not attached. I think that anything coming from the president’s office is seen as offensive by some of our faculty colleagues.” Herold’s version and the final version seem nearly identical, which makes sense after Clark responded that his idea was “wonderful and a good approach, especially considering the comments posted today.”
All’s well that ends… well…
The committees whose searches ended with the hiring of CAST Dean Todd Rickel and VP of Advancement Larry Burns sent a letter and a matrix of strengths and weaknesses to Scarborough. The Honors College search ended with only a verbal report to the president, says university spokesman Wayne Hill.
“There is no requirement for search committees to develop specific documents,” Hill wrote in an email to the Devil Strip on August 11. “In this case, the Search Committee for Dean of the Honors College did not prepare a formal strengths/weakness matrix for the candidates and made a verbal recommendation to the president reflecting the views of committee members.”
However, on May 14, in an email titled “Information for our meeting today,” Clark sent Scarborough—with Ramsier, Herold, Marcia Fletcher and Kristin Brummond CC’d in—two documents and these words: “Please find attached some information that will be helpful for our 2:00pm appointment today.”
One, “Discussion Points 5-11-15 consolidation attempt final (2),” compiles the discussion from the committee. (Click here to read it all.) The following appears near the top: “In sum, of the 11 Committee members, 10 concluded that 2 candidates were acceptable and 6 Committee members concluded that one was unacceptable. Chair Clark did not participate.”
We have confirmed four “unacceptable” votes for Ransom, which points to her being the unnamed candidate in the summary. Traditionally, this would have ended her candidacy so she wouldn’t go before the president for consideration. Faculty union leader Dr. John Zipp says there’s a logic behind that. A search committee represents the faculty in the hiring process, so it would be “unfair” to the candidate and the faculty for someone voted unacceptable by a majority of the committee to move on and face representative disfavor.
Nonetheless, on June 10, the Board of Trustees approved Scarborough’s recommendation to hire Ransom. That may have a little something to do with the second document Clark sent, “Honors + College + Candidate + Evaluations _051415,” which summarizes unattributed evaluations that seem to compile impressions from outside the search committee, like students and other faculty.
Out of five evaluations, Ransom received three rankings on her “Overall Suitability”: a 5 (on a 4 point scale), 1 and 4. One of the two of the favorable comments listed in her section reads: “Dr. Ransom is a rare find. She stood head and shoulders above the other two candidates. She would be an exceptional Dean and Vice Provost of Honors College.”
Scarborough clearly agreed, explaining his decision this way in an email to the search committee: “Selecting a leader for the Honors College is a question of who is the best fit to accomplish what the Honors College most needs to accomplish for the college, itself, and the University as a whole. We need a Dean who will build on the great work of Dean Mugler. At the same time, we need a Dean who will adapt the Honors College to the changing needs and expectations of students and society.”
Though the search committee gave Clark feedback on drafts of her summary of their comments, they never saw the final report presented to the president. But all those who spoke to The Devil Strip said they had long concluded what the end result would be so they weren’t surprised when they received Scarborough’s email thanking them for their time, which each of them felt had been wasted in a sham.
SIDE-BY-SIDE COMPARISONS FROM THE COMMITTEE SUMMARY:
***This is copied directly from the report submitted to President Scarborough. It lists three years of experience for Ransom at the Jesup Scott Honors College, but her CV lists her start as 2013, which would be two years.***[column size=one_third position=first ]
DR. JEFF CHAMBERLAIN
- Would serve as a traditional honors Dean operating the program we have
- Many/Several committee members felt the candidate is likely to bring new ideas to the Honors College
- Shows capability to serve as Vice Provost, but currently reports to a Dean
- Operates by cultivating one-on-one relationships with faculty
- The committee was divided regarding the candidate’s ability to be strong in front of business, community, etc.
- Comes from university similar in size to UA; Program not diverse
- 8 years’ experience operating an honors college; founding director
- Very interested in individual student success
- Had good ideas about course development
- Research inquiry is history; Holds rank
- International connections
- Some members of the committee felt that the candidate was not concise in answering questions; others felt the candidate’s answers were thorough and appropriately academic
DR. KATHY COOKE
- Would serve as a traditional honors Dean operating the program we have
- Many/Several committee members felt the candidate’s skill set would allow her to be an innovative dean as well
- Comes from small homogenous private college
- 10 years’ experience operating an honors program; founding director
- Concerned about adequacy of resources for the college
- Very personable
- Understands interdisciplinary research; History of science is a strength; Holds rank
- Remembered names; anticipated questions before asked
- Obtained grants
- Some committee members felt that the candidate has the skill set to serve as Vice Provost, while others felt that the candidate is “scalable” to serve as Vice Provost
- Answered questions well and asked insightful questions
DR. LAKEESHA RANSOM
- Would serve as a Vice Provost and not be a traditional Honors Dean; the committee was divided as to whether being non-traditional would be a positive or negative
- 3 years’ experience operating an honors college
- Appears to require team of subordinates to serve in Dean role
- Does not have a research background; Does not hold rank
- Would present well to larger community, business; however, the candidate shared an anecdote that cast doubt for some committee members and to them suggested that the candidate did not appear to like fundraising
- May not be hands on with individual students and parents
- Changes jobs every 2-4 years
- International connections
- Personable; great energy
- The committee was divided regarding the candidate’s abilities to focus on diversity and high-impact and to increase enrollment
- Has higher ed administrative experience; Strong management skills – perhaps not leadership skills
- Did not interview or answer questions well; appeared to be unprepared
- Did not submit cover letter
Chris Horne has worked as a journalist and freelance writer for much of the last decade, including as a columnist and editor for The 11th Hour alt-weekly paper, a city hall beat reporter for the (Macon) Telegraph, digital content manager for 13WMAZ-TV and a web producer for Cleveland’s newsnet5.com (WEWS). He is the publisher of The Devil Strip. You can email him at chris (at) thedevilstrip (dot) com.