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Just a Google Search Away

May 16, 2007

When the University of Mary Washington fired its president last month, it was over what he said was a "highly unusual" incident that was "totally out of character." William J. Frawley, after only 10 months on the job, had been charged with two separate counts of drunk driving on two consecutive days in April and will face court dates in July.

What the university didn't know -- nor, apparently, did the search firm that helped select him -- was that Frawley had been arrested some 19 years previously in Delaware. According to The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va., Frawley was charged with concealing a deadly weapon after threatening people with a knife.

The charge was dropped -- which would explain why the search firm, Korn/Ferry International, didn't come across the incident in its background check. But it doesn't explain why the firm didn't find a report of the arrest in a routine Internet search, as a Free Lance-Star reporter did soon after Frawley's drunk-driving charges in mid-April. The resulting article was published on Sunday.

The Google search turns up a link to the concluding chapter of a 2002 academic book about the controversial Pioneer Fund, titled The Funding of Scientific Racism. Frawley appears in two paragraphs of the book, in which the author implies that while the future president of Mary Washington was a linguistics professor at the University of Delaware, he was the victim of a smear campaign in the midst of a debate over Pioneer funding.

Frawley was involved in an academic brouhaha at Delaware pitting those, like himself, who found the Pioneer Fund's agenda of financing studies on racial disparities to be questionable against the organization's defenders, who argue that it supports research that is controversial and would otherwise be difficult to secure funding for. The debate was sparked after a faculty member at the university received a grant from the fund.

The Funding of Scientific Racism author also pointed out that a critic of Frawley's views described the knife incident in another book, "suggesting the image of a dangerous lunatic." However, the author continues to refute the critic since "the incident involved Frawley's confrontation with a man who had been stalking his wife, and as soon as the police learned the facts, all charges were immediately dropped." (According to a footnote, this was based on a 2000 interview with Frawley.) He was also described by a Pioneer lawyer quoted by the author as someone who had "gotten into fights at cocktail parties." Frawley has not been commenting to the press.

The Free Lance-Star confirmed that the original news report of the incident referred to in the book was published in The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., and corroborated in court records.

Standard Procedure?

The question of whether the search firm should have unearthed the report isn't just academic: per a standard clause in the university's contract with Korn/Ferry, the firm must provide services for a new presidential search since the last one resulted in a candidate who was fired, with cause, not long after his term began. The university hasn't decided yet whether it will use the firm again -- the Board of Visitors will discuss the next search at a retreat in July -- but a decision would almost certainly rest on whether it is determined that the firm overlooked key details in Frawley's history that could have had an impact on his performance as president.

In Frawley's case, the Delaware incident -- had it been known during the search process -- might or might not have been deemed relevant, depending on the circumstances surrounding the events and any subsequent investigation (as opposed to second-hand reports wielded by dueling academics in their respective books).

Korn/Ferry did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and even the university has been unable to get in touch with the company recently, according to Teresa Mannix, its director of news and public information. Representatives of other executive search firms specializing in higher education emphasized Korn/Ferry's prestige, and Mannix said its worldwide reputation -- as well as its success elsewhere in Virginia -- was an important factor in selecting the company for the president search.

Consultants at other firms in the industry agreed that Internet searches and background checks were standard procedure. Ron Stead, a senior consultant at Academic Search, Inc., said that once the pool of finalists is down to a short list, the kinds of checks would typically include searches on Google and Lexis Nexis, a credit check, and interviews with "people ... of our choosing."

"And also typically we ask them directly, is there anything in your background that could be an embarrassment to you or to your institution along the way?" Stead said.

But search firms don't always work alone. Often, they will work concurrently with the search committees at the institutions that hired them as consultants. Mannix, who spoke on behalf J. William Poole, a member of the Board of Visitors at Mary Washington, said that in their case there was "no concurrent review" by the search committee. "We really relied on them to do the review process," she said.

Even if Korn/Ferry did do the requisite Internet searches, there would have been no guarantee that the story would have shown up in the hits, depending on the keywords used. To make things more difficult, a deceased actor by the name of William Frawley (yes, Fred on the "I Love Lucy" show) would have produced pages of results. And even if the firm had found a relevant link on the Internet, there is always the question of whether the information is reliable.

"I guess if you get right down to the specifics in this instance, how consistent are Google searches?" asked Bryan Carlson, president of the Registry for College and University Presidents, which helps universities find interim leaders from among its own contracted administrators. Dennis M. Barden, the senior vice president and education practice leader at Witt/Kieffer, raised similar points.

"The problem with searching online is you get what you get. What you find is dependent on how good you are at it," he said. "Not everything that’s out there online is the truth. What it does is sensitize you to things you ought to be checking on in other venues."

Barden said he could think of two instances in which his firm was accused of overlooking pertinent information about a candidate. In both, he said, the company was able to prove that the accusations were not accurate. "That doesn’t mean that we all don’t live in dread fear that something like that will happen," he added. "That’s why we’re so neurotic; that’s why we check so much."

And those checks are continually being enhanced with new methods and technologies. "We’re getting better and better and better at this all the time, which is why it’s news when something like this goes wrong," Barden said.

But as search techniques become more sophisticated, privacy concerns become more pertinent. Search firms are often asked to investigate personal information that may or may not be relevant -- but where a candidate's privacy becomes invaded is an open question. "Search firms are really often caught betwixt and between probing or not probing a particular question or issue, and there are liabilities in both ways, potentially," Carlson explained. "At some point, you do run the risk of exposing information about an individual, let’s say, where there could be a liability." And what is relevant, as in Frawley's case, is an open question.

For Barden, the potentially risky elements of a search will always have to be dealt with. But still, the most old-fashioned background-checking technique remains as useful as ever: "At the end of the day, there’s nothing like looking a person in the eye and asking if they’re telling you the truth."

 

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