Transparency, or a lack thereof.
For a number of Pacific Lutheran University students and faculty members, it’s an unsettling theme they keep coming back to when discussing the surprise announcement of Allan Belton as the university’s new president last week.
It’s not that anyone has anything bad to say about Belton, necessarily. The former banker and PLU’s chief administrative officer served the university well over the last two years in an interim capacity, they say.
It’s just that Belton — who publicly stated on multiple occasions that he wasn’t interested in the gig — never was an official finalist for the job.
For many people, that’s a problem — and understandably so. It’s a situation that lends itself to festering and legitimate questions about how and why the decision was reached.
How, exactly, did it come to this?
“Nobody really knows,” Riley Dolan, a senior at PLU, said bluntly.
Forthright answers are deserved, for Dolan, his fellow students and the university’s staff and faculty. Especially at PLU, a school that prides itself on “thoughtful inquiry and questioning.”
For context, over the course of a lengthy search the school narrowed in on three potential candidates. PLU distributed their resumes to faculty, staff and students and brought each to campus for meet-and-greets.
Ultimately, a presidential search committee was tasked with making a final recommendation to the board of regents. To protect the candidates’ privacy and professional reputations, their identities have remained confidential outside the university, according to PLU spokesperson Lace Smith. So, too, has the search committee’s recommendation.
What we do know is that throughout this campus vetting process, Belton was not among those finalists. He was never identified as a potential candidate for the job — at least to students, staff and faculty members.
While the board highlighted Belton’s commitment to the school and his track record of leadership as interim president, to many the explanation about why his name surprisingly rose above the other candidates has remained unsatisfying.
For a number of students, the fact that Belton becomes another in a long line of straight, white male presidents only adds to the frustration. Other candidates came from different backgrounds and offered important perspectives, they say.
Leaving Belton’s performance out of things for the moment, it’s hard to disagree with at least the spirit of these sentiments.
“All of campus was very well aware that this process was going on, well aware of who the three candidates were,” said Barbara Gilchrist, a junior at PLU. “There’s confusion about how we moved away from these three candidates and then ended up choosing (Belton).”
Beth Kraig, a professor of history with nearly three decades experience at PLU, agrees. She described Belton’s selection as “a head-scratcher.”
“I just would like more information. I was very surprised,” Kraig said. “There are any number of ways that humans indicate confusion, and that’s what I’ve been hearing from a lot of folks. We were told repeatedly that (Belton) didn’t want to be a candidate, he hadn’t thrown his hat in the ring. And then there he is.
“I think the level of mystification is pretty high on campus, which has nothing to do with Allan.”
Part of the problem here is the intentionally confidential process of choosing a new president.
The “responsibility of selecting the president rests with the Board,” said Smith, citing university bylaws. Smith added that much of the response Belton has received since being named president has been positive.
“While Mr. Belton was not among the candidates originally part of the search, faculty and students have had a chance to interact with him as acting president and witness his leadership style for at least two years,” Smith said in a statement provided by email. “As the Board noted, Mr. Belton’s accomplishments and his ability to work cooperatively with the entire PLU family in that period played a major role in his selection.”
When it comes to advancing diversity and inclusion at PLU — important objectives the university has made significant strides at in recent years — Ed Grogan, chair of the university’s board of regents, said he understands the concerns being raised.
Grogan also offered reassurances.
“There’s a large group of students from marginalized communities that have marginalized voices, and they’re feeling ignored in this process, but they weren’t. Their voices were heard and their input was important,” Grogan said.
“Allan is truly committed,” Grogan continued. “While he doesn’t necessarily fit the profile some people really wanted, I do believe the strides he’s made (toward diversity and inclusion) … are meaningful. And I think they’re just the start. I think it’s going to get better and better from here.”
Hopefully, that’s the case.
But it’s also hard not to feel like the board of regents has some serious work to do — which starts with explaining itself to a baffled campus.
Grogan rightfully acknowledged this.
“The fact that these students, within days, were saying, ‘Hey we have a lot of questions, and we believe we deserve answers.’ That’s the campus culture (at PLU),” Kraig said of the reaction at the university. “In an interesting way, it’s kind of a tribute to our campus.”
A fitting response would be solid answers, and soon.