Sunday, November 7, 2010

Le Tricheur à l'as de carreau

  Georges de La Tour (ca 1635-40)

More on University of Minnesota

Presidential Search

On Friday, a search advisory committee recommended four candidates to the regents, who will consider them and then publicly name finalists.

At that point, it will become clear whether the U can attract academic superstars for its top job at a time of shrinking resources and growing expectations -- especially if it must endure a public vetting of the finalists.

"You really have a limited pool of people right now," said Rita Bornstein, president emerita of Rollins College in Florida and an expert on higher education leadership. Because of big challenges to universities, including state funding cuts, "most boards are looking for someone who has experience being a president." That's not an easy feat.

But Clyde Allen, regents chairman, said there's "a strong pool."

According to the job description, he or she must be "a creative fundraiser," a "skilled planner and budgeter," an "effective communicator" and a "politically astute leader."

Making the head hunt harder is that the U is a public institution, and state law demands that names of finalists be public. That makes recruiting sitting presidents of other institutions -- a goal of the U's search -- "very, very challenging," said Bornstein, because such candidates might worry about souring relations at their current spot.

Some faculty members, however, have challenged the need for secrecy and point out that a public forum means more people have a chance to vet the candidates.
In 2002, after secretly interviewing several candidates netted in a national search, the regents rejected the search advisory committee's recommendations and chose Bruininks, then serving as interim president.

In that search, as in others across the country, the public university weighed transparency against privacy.

In contrast, the University of Minnesota's search, so far, has been conducted privately. Candidates will become public only once the regents select them as finalists.

That's more than reasonable, said Jane Kirtley, director of the U's Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law.

"If you're going to be the president of a public university, one of the first things you have to accept is that you're going to be subject to public oversight," she said. "You might as well get used to it."

Allen has said that if one candidate comes out "head and shoulders" above the others, the board might pick just one finalist.

That possibility -- one Allen now calls unlikely -- has worried some. "We're talking about a land-grant university, a university that survives to a great extent on taxpayer dollars," Kirtley said. "The public literally has a right to know how this search process is being conducted."

Such a tactic would also deny professors and students a chance to participate in the decision, said William Gleason, a faculty member in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. "They are going to get egg on their face if they try to pull that," he said.

In 2004, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the regents violated the state's Open Meeting Law and Data Practices Act by interviewing finalists in secret, refusing to release their names. Several media organizations sued to force release of those names, and the U eventually complied.

General Counsel Mark Rotenberg has said in this search, the U will "live within the Supreme Court's decision." Naming one finalist would not violate the law.

Allen said his comments were meant to simply alert people to the possibility that one candidate could come out on top. But that's a slim possibility, he said. "I expect that there would be a number of finalists," he added.

The board seems to be staying "flexible," which is appropriate, said Kathryn Vandenbosch, chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee. A top-notch candidate, worried about his or her job now, might request to be the only finalist considered. Vandenbosch said she trusts the board to make that call. "I certainly have a high level of trust that they will sift out the best of the best," she said.

I do not share Professor Vandenbosch's optimism.

One of the members of the Board of Regents was extensively quoted in the Pioneer Press  recently about the search for a new football coach.

What he had to say is disturbing for two reasons.

First, it appears that he has distorted priorities and a faulty understanding of the concept of outreach, at least at a university.

Second, he makes laudatory remarks about a failed president at another university without apparently realizing the dismal job this person has done. That someone, who is so unaware of the academic landscape and of what makes a good (or a bad) university president, is involved in selecting our next president is very disturbing.

Given the composition of the search committee, it is hard to believe that the Board of Regents has the expertise to remove one or more of the semi-finalists from the list.

Of course one or more of the semi-finalists may choose not to be a finalist because of the publicity. I can live with this and if that is the reason it should be so stated. The search committee should have made it clear that this was an open search - at least at the end - and that names would have to be named.  If someone withdraws for this reason, it does not reflect well on the search committee. I remind people who make a big thing of this problem, that the U's Dr. Robert Jones was a finalist for the presidency of the University of Hawaii - and an excellent one. This does not appear to have impaired his ability to function here at Minnesota.

Let's put all the cards on the table this time.


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