Putting the president search in perspective

by by Patrice

Some faculty members have voiced the opinion that the Presidential Search Advisory Committee recommended weak candidates, a result, they speculate, of the 11-member committee having just three faculty representatives. I don’t recall the same complaints in 1988. Since I was a member of both PSACs it might be helpful for me to compare the two searches and the recommendations they produced.
The search committee: The 20-member 1988 committee was drawn entirely from within the University and included a civil service representative, an administrator, five students and 13 faculty. The governor, legislature, business, organized labor, University Alumni Association, University Foundation, University deans, and students were each represented by one member and faculty by three members on the 11-person 1996 committee.
The candidate pool: This is the criticized and critically important step of a search. In both searches, most of the candidates were nominated by current and former University of Minnesota administrators and by the search firms hired to assist the committees. The outside community provided quite a few names. Faculty nominated relatively few candidates.
Given the recent call for more corporate-like governance for the University, one might have expected the 1996 pool to have many candidates from the business community. It didn’t. The age group of viable presidential candidates is the same as that of successful corporate CEOs. CEOs, however, earn much higher salaries and do not have to deal with a democratic institution and its multiple stake holders. The job is simply not attractive. The vast majority of candidates in both pools were people who have chosen careers in the academic community.
Both candidate pools were almost entirely academics, but the quality of the 1996 pool was higher on average.
The selection process: Many faculty members have served on selection committees. In my experience, regardless of background, committee members quickly identify the best and weakest candidates and spend most of their time considering the high-middle contenders: i.e., cream rises. This happened in both searches. This year we all agreed on one group of candidates to interview and further agreed to interview several candidates strongly championed by different individuals on the committee.
The interviews: The 1988 committee suffered so much press attention that we could not insure the candidates’ confidentiality if we brought them near campus. Consequently, different subsets of the committee and one or two regents interviewed candidates at remote sites. We did not develop a set of questions for the candidates. We escaped press attention in 1996 until after we had interviewed candidates. The interviews themselves were far superior because: 1) the entire committee was present; 2) the interviews were conducted in a short space of time; and 3) we asked broad-ranging, open-ended questions that allowed the candidates to reveal much about the relevance of their experience, mode of management, philosophy of education, etc. Our questions were better because, as well as discussing the questions we would ask, a more diverse committee generated better questions.
The recommendation: At our final meeting, we discussed at length the seven candidates interviewed. We invited two regents to observe. In a secret ballot that allowed each member to recommend up to four candidates, 10 of 11 voted for Muse, Ramaley and Yudof. One member declined to vote as his favorite candidate withdrew before the interviews. Committee member Win Wallin criticized the open search process after the vote, and proposed that no names be forwarded to the regents. A vote was called and, except for the three committee members from the business community, all voted to forward the names.
I am convinced that the 1996 search produced an outstanding group of candidates and that having more faculty would not have changed the pool or the short list. I sympathize with Wallin’s frustrations with the search process. I too wanted to call my friends to get comments on some nominees. But I have also become convinced that his pool of “really good” non-candidates would materialize in a closed search only if the committee was small and homogeneous in viewpoint. Such a committee could assure confidentiality, but would dismiss many promising candidates because of the members’ limited perspective.
Given a committee representative of the University and the community that supports it, no publicity-shy person would consent to committee members soliciting opinions from friends, foes and the uninformed. And on a representative committee, whether open or closed, there can be no promise that a well-meaning committee member will not take it upon himself to leak names.
The candidates recommended to the regents have been tested by difficult circumstances, their administrative experiences are relevant to universities structured like Minnesota’s and they are committed to public education. I urge my colleagues to reserve their judgment until the candidates have had their public interviews. If these fine people are driven away, and some faculty seem intent on joining Wallin in this endeavor, we will all lose.
Patrice Morrow is a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior.