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Politics and the College Presidency

April 3, 2007

Choosing a college president is always a delicate affair, and that can especially be true at public institutions where state politics and the academy intertwine. But at West Virginia University, some outspoken critics have accused the search committee of playing politics with the selection of candidates, with some alleging that one in particular has been preordained from the start.

Several presidential candidates have faced significant opposition in recent months, Jane K. Fernandes at Gallaudet University being the most prominent example. In February, a semifinalist for president at Westfield State College, in Massachusetts, left some observers wondering about his qualifications. At West Virginia, the additional accusations that political connections played a role has set the case apart from the others.

Of three final candidates for the presidency, which will be vacated when David C. Hardesty Jr. retires in September, Michael Garrison has sustained significant criticism among influential alumni and faculty. In contrast to the other two finalists, Kansas State University Provost M. Duane Nellis and Portland State University President Daniel Bernstine, Garrison is not a career academic. Instead, he was once chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Wise and until recently, chairman of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, which approves the university Board of Governors's final choice of president. (He stepped down several weeks ago, according to the commission's chancellor, Brian Noland.)

Critics of Garrison note that as chief of staff, he would have worked closely with the governor to appoint -- pending confirmation -- five of the 17 members of that governing board, including the chair, Stephen Goodwin. Goodwin also chairs the presidential search committee, and was not available for comment on Monday.

Another connection has raised eyebrows, too: Goodwin's sister-in-law is West Virginia's secretary of education and the arts, Kay Goodwin, who worked with Garrison under Wise. She did not comment except to say that as a member of the higher education commission, she "did not publicly support or oppose any candidate."

The criticisms have come from various segments of the university community. Robert B. King, a director of the alumni association and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, wrote a letter to members of the search committee warning that West Virginians' perceptions that the process is preordained are "disappointing" but "may be accurate," according to a copy obtained by the Associated Press.

The chair of the statistics department, E. James Harner, sent out an e-mail to colleagues expressing disdain for the process, calling Garrison "simply not qualified," and urged others to write letters. Harner, a prominent critic of Garrison, said he has perceived a strong "undercurrent" of opinion that the choice for president "was a done deal."

Part of the backlash stems from a belief that a "nontraditional" president would not best serve the university's interests. The current president, Hardesty, weathered his own share of criticism during his appointment for, among other things, insufficient academic experience. According to the American Council on Education, about 13 percent of college presidents in 2006 worked outside before their appointments.

But Harner, who strongly supports Nellis and served under him when he was West Virginia's arts and sciences dean, believes that's not what the university needs at this point in its development with -- many contend -- an eye toward the top 100. "The challenges in today’s environment are much, much more difficult," he said. "I feel strongly that the president should be an academician." Sherman D. Riemenschneider, a math professor, seemed to agree. "What type of experience would it take to move WVU to the next level as a national research-extensive university?" he said.

Members of the search committee are not pleased with those assessments. "It is unfair to the search committee to bring this issue up in this 11th hour," Parviz Famouri, a computer science professor and chairman of the Faculty Senate, said in an e-mail. "I think it's unacceptable to coerce the board of governors in their decision for or against a particular candidate and [the judge's] letter is trying to do that."

Kevin M. Leyden, a professor of political science and director of the university's Institute for Public Affairs, defended the candidates. "I think all three candidates appear to be qualified to be the next president of West Virginia University," he said. "Each has unique strengths."

Famouri also challenged the idea that a strong academic background was a necessity for the position. "President Hardesty changed the landscape of leadership at a large public university like ours. Presidents now look outward and focus on raising money, with provost and vice presidents handling internal affairs and overseeing academic details." The evolving job description of college president has certainly created tensions between the overwhelmingly academic careers of many candidates and the increasingly financial aspect of the job.

Still, said Nellis, the Kansas State provost and former WVU arts dean, "I feel that [academic experience is] an advantage in being a strong candidate. It’s something that I feel is an asset that I have in this process, and I would hope that others see that as well. But at the same time," he said, Hardesty "has done an outstanding job, in my opinion, as president."

Garrison, a West Virginia graduate and Oxford scholar, did not return calls requesting comment, and Bernstine was on campus meeting with West Virginia students and faculty in open sessions on Monday. Goodwin has reiterated that the next president will be announced on April 13.

 

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