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Headhunter Heads Off

June 10, 2014

One of the nation’s top higher ed headhunters ended his work on Florida State University’s presidential search Monday, just days after the Faculty Senate accused his work of aiding a well-connected politician.

R. William Funk, head of a Texas-based search firm that has placed about 400 college and university presidents, withdrew from the search, citing the “environment that has evolved” around it.

Faculty said that Funk either ignored the public advice of the university’s presidential search committee or made back-room deals that benefited John Thrasher, a state senator and former speaker of the House who is also chairman of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s reelection campaign. In what appears to be a first-of-its-kind tactic by critical professors, the full Faculty Senate took a vote of no confidence in Funk.

Funk will collect $61,000 for his work in Tallahassee, including fees and reimbursable costs, said a Florida State spokesman. Funk, head of R. William Funk and Associates, withdrew his firm from the search in a two-sentence letter dated Monday that gave no reason. But, in a statement, the firm said, "Given the environment that has evolved around the presidential search, we do not feel that we can make the kind of contribution to the search that we would like or the university deserves”

The head of the presidential search committee, university trustee Edward Burr, called Funk’s departure from the search “disappointing.” He said the university is “committed to conducting a thorough, open and transparent search of the highest quality and integrity for the next president of Florida State University.”

Faculty thought otherwise. They accused Funk of trying to help Thrasher, either unilaterally or in secret consult with university officials. At one point, Funk suggested Thrasher be the only candidate interviewed for the job because of the shadow he was casting over the process, as other potential candidates might not apply if they assumed Thrasher would get the job. In an interview last week, Funk said Thrasher was so overshadowing the search process and discouraging applications that it was best  to give him an up-or-down vote before conducting a "real search" with a “clear playing field” if Thrasher didn’t get the job

Funk said the faculty loaded him with baggage from previous searches that resulted with a politician in charge of a public university. First, the 2002 search at Florida State settled on Thomas Kent (T.K.) Wetherell, though Wetherell, a former House speaker, had been president of Tallahassee Community College before he took over Florida State. Second, the 2012 search at Purdue University -- in which many professors stressed the importance of hiring someone with an academic career – that ended with the selection of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Funk also worked on the 2007 presidential search at West Virginia University that settled on a former lobbyist and chief of staff to a former governor. That president resigned about a year later amid a scandal involving questions about a degree awarded to the then-governor's daughter. Many said a president with an academic background might have prevented the scandal.

Last week, Funk said it’s boards, not him, that pick presidents.

“The one thing being forgotten is, I don’t choose these people – you’d think I was all-powerful,” he said.

The no-confidence vote by Florida State faculty seems to have worked. If faculty elsewhere adopt the idea, the spread of no-confidence votes could further complicate presidential searches.

 

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