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Big Name, Thin Résumé

March 11, 2009

The president of Roger Williams University is defending the process by which his son was hired for a fund-raising job, weeks after a similar move helped spur a no confidence vote against the president of the University of New Mexico.

Roy Nirschel’s son, Chris Nirschel, 26, was hired several months ago for the position of regional major gifts officer, the university’s student newspaper reported last week. As advertised, the position called for minimum qualifications of “a bachelor’s degree” and “five years of fund-raising experience in a nonprofit or higher education organization.” University officials acknowledged that Chris Nirschel has no formal fund-raising experience, but they would not say whether he ever completed his bachelor’s degree. He did attend Roger Williams for a time, however, and officials say that experience was an important factor in his hiring.

Roy Nirschel said Tuesday that he played no role in the hiring of his son, and that he specifically asked to be left out of the decision.

“I said I can’t be involved in the conversation, much less the hiring,” Nirschel said.

Nirschel said he did not think the hiring of his son fit the widely accepted definition of nepotism.

“If a candidate is given special consideration because he or she is a family member [or] a friend and they displace a candidate who is more qualified, that’s nepotism. That’s inappropriate,” he said. “I’m making the assumption, having not been involved in the search, that Chris did not displace any quote ‘more qualified’ candidates.”

Chris Nirschel declined an interview request, saying “I’m not going to answer any questions. I don’t need distractions from my work. I take pride in what I do, and I love the university.”

When the University of New Mexico offered a position to President David Schmidly’s son in October, it prompted such outcry from faculty that Brian Schmidly decided not to take the $94,000 job as associate director of sustainability. The issue, however, continues to haunt David Schmidly, who received a no confidence vote from the faculty in late February.

Howard Snell, president of New Mexico’s Faculty Senate, said the hiring of Schmidly’s son was one of a number of factors that has stirred faculty criticism of the president. Apart from complaints about high pay for administrators, the Senate’s “no confidence” resolution specifically cited outcries of “cronyism and nepotism” about recent hires.

“There was consternation on campus when that issue occurred, and I think that the main outcome is a desire to have clear policy about familial hires so that rules and policies for that are clear,” said Snell, a biology professor. “I think that’s what caused some of the confusion with President Schmidly’s son. From one interpretation that was within policy, and from another person’s interpretation it might not have been.”

Faculty at Roger Williams have raised no formal objections about Nirschel's son being hired, and the president of the faculty senate said Tuesday that he was not even aware it had happened.

Policy: Relatives Must be "Best Qualified" Candidate

As late as Tuesday afternoon, Roy Nirschel said he'd just spoken with his general counsel's office who "didn't really recall" whether the college had a nepotism policy, adding that it wasn't until a year and a half ago that the college's trustees even adopted a conflict of interest policy. After the publication of this story Wednesday, however, the university's communications office sent an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed clarifying that the university does indeed have a nepotism policy.

"Relatives may be appointed to faculty and staff positions when it has been clearly established that they are the best qualified candidate," according to the policy. [This story has been updated from an earlier version].

The college's Board of Trustees raised no objections to the hiring of Chris Nirschel, according to Peter Wilbur, the former vice president for university advancement who made the hire.

“It was totally transparent,” said Wilbur, who now holds the title of vice president for strategic planning and government relations. “Not only did I announce it at a subcommittee [of the board], but it was also discussed at a [full] board meeting. No one had an issue with it.”

The university’s conflict of interest policy, which was passed by the board under President Nirschel’s advice, does not specifically forbid family members from working with each other. The policy emphasizes, however, that any such relationships must be disclosed.

Andy Brantley, president of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources [CUPA-HR], said any college should take careful steps to insure familial hires don't raise conflicts of interest.

“In endorsing this [hire], my hope would be that the Board of Trustees has very clearly outlined areas to ensure that no conflict of interest can occur,” Brantley added. “That’s the bottom line.”

Chris Nirschel does not report to his father, but his boss does. Lynn Fawthrop, senior vice president for enrollment and advancement, said she would not be fearful to tell the president that she needed to fire or reprimand his son.

"If he was not living up to the expectations I would certainly say so," she said.

Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who specializes in compensation issues in higher education, said it would make sense to change Fawthrop’s reporting requirements on matters related to the president’s son, allowing Fawthrop to discuss the younger Nirschel's performance or other issues with someone other than the president.

“These [private] institutions have an awful lot more flexibility than the publics do, but one way to resolve it is to say this person reports to the president on everything except Chris. That’s what I would do," Cotton said. "That would avoid, to the extent you can, the appearance issue.”

As president at Roger Williams, Roy Nirschel has been an outspoken advocate for the highest ethical standards. In the wake of the 2005 scandal involving American University's then president, he wrote an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, chiding university presidents and boards that don’t embrace the “clear, rigorous” guidelines of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB). The AGB doesn’t have guidelines that strictly relate to nepotism, but the association stresses the need to guard against even the appearance of conflicts of interest.

Susan Johnston, executive vice president of the AGB, said it “sounds pretty good” that Roger Williams officials consulted trustees about the hiring of the president’s son. That said, there are obvious potential problems with any such hire, she said.

“When one hires one’s family, the potential for conflicts of interest, including the appearance of a conflict, becomes sharper,” Johnston said.

Other Candidates 'Too Damn Steeped in Tradition'

No one at Roger Williams is suggesting that Chris Nirschel fully met the qualifications that were outlined in the advertisement for the position he now holds. He did sales work at the University of Phoenix, but Fawthrop said “I don’t believe he had any formal fund-raising experience."

As for Nirschel's education, the university won't confirm whether he holds a bachelor's degree, citing the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Universities routinely confirm such basic information without fear of FERPA violations, but Fawthrop said the university could not release the information when "we have something signed" that explicitly forbids disclosure. The U.S. Department of Education did not respond to an inquiry Tuesday about whether any such limitations exist.

Wilbur, who hired Nirschel, said he saw potential in Chris Nirschel and decided not to strictly abide by the parameters set in the job advertisement.

“I reserve the right as the executive for that position to not paint by the numbers if I see some opportunity," he said.

To apply Roy Nirschel’s definition of nepotism, it would be unfair if Chris Nirschel had been given the job over a more qualified candidate because of his family connections. Roy Nirschel said he felt confident that didn’t happen, in part because the university has had “a devil of a time” filling positions in its development office.

Wilbur echoed the president’s sentiment that filling fund-raising positions has been challenging, even in an environment where nonprofits are struggling and laying off people with fund-raising experience. That’s not to say there wasn’t interest in the position. Wilbur said he had a stack “an inch and a half” thick of résumés from people applying for the job. The number of applicants, however, “doesn’t mean we had a lot of qualified people” vying for the position, he said.

“Some of them were just too damned steep in tradition,” Wilbur said of the more experienced candidates.

Wilbur didn't discuss Nirschel's exact salary, but said the president's son is being paid less than his more experienced counterparts.

"We’re still paying him only 60 percent of what we pay other gift officers. So the next headline will be 'University taking advantage of president's son,' " Wilbur said with a laugh.

Chris Nirschel's salary will likely have to be made public eventually, because new disclosure rules for non-profit organizations require presidents to report compensation of relatives that work within the organization.

University Knew of Arrest Record

Chris Nirschel’s position is new to the university. As a regional gift raiser, he’s stationed in Hoboken, N.J. and only comes to campus about once a month. In creating a new approach to fund raising, which combines development and student recruitment, Wilbur said the university was more concerned with sales potential and personality than fund raising experience per se. Nirschel had the “enthusiasm” and, frankly, a name that might help establish relationships with donors and future students alike, Wilbur said.

“Chris, he had the energy and personality,” Wilbur said. “Yes, he had the name. I’m not going to sit here with teeth in my mouth and say I didn’t know his name.”

In addition to a name, Chris Nirschel has an arrest record. Nirschel was arrested in 2004 for procuring alcohol for a minor and possession of a weapon – not a firearm, according to the Bristol Police Department’s Web site. He was arrested again in 2005 for driving with a suspended license, the Web site notes.

Wilbur, who has been at the university for nine years, said he knew of Nirschel’s arrests and chalked them up to “growing pains.”

Nirschel’s past behavior, however, is not as important as his future behavior, according to Cotton, a partner in Mintz Levin law firm. If Nirschel were to run into trouble with the law again, it could create a professionally awkward situation for his father, Cotton said.

“The fact of the matter is that the president, if he got involved in it, would have a much easier time giving another employee a second chance than he would his son,” Cotton said. “Chris is walking on eggshells as I see it. Everything he does reflects on his father.”

 

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