Games Colleges Play in Presidential Searches

Competition among the viewpoints of various observers, writes John Thelin, ultimately centers on a crucial question: Should academic searches be closed or open?

August 22, 2019
 
 
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When Vanderbilt University defeated the University of Michigan in baseball to win the College World Series in June, I thought intercollegiate athletics were done for the year. While watching the late-night television sports network postgame interviews, I fell asleep. I was at peace, knowing that college fans such as me, along with college coaches and competitors, had two months to rest before starting a new season in the fall semester.

I was mistaken. My nap turned into a bad dream where athletics and academics blurred to create a new summer league championship tournament involving presidential searches.

By July, the debate about college presidential search was the only game on campuses in my waking life. Numerous articles and opinion pieces sparred about what was right and wrong in such searches. Throughout the summer, and now as it comes to an end, I’ve wondered: Is this our new preoccupation in higher education?

In my dream, the aim of this new varsity competition of presidential searches was to rate various proposals about the rules of the search game. In other words, it was not about whom to pick as a candidate to fill the job. Rather, each entrant had to devise a scheme about picking the best way to select a candidate. A panel of academic referees would evaluate the submitted proposals. The competition mixed the features of a science fair with a debating tournament. The athletic dimension was that scoring was comparable to gymnastics or figure skating, with point rewards for degrees of difficulty and penalties that deducted performance points for various fouls.

Rating the various submitted proposals for presidential search procedures ultimately centered on a crucial question: Did the entry emphasize that review of candidates in academic searches should be a) closed or b) open to the public?

As teams worked to design their proposals, search firm consultants lobbied for rules to assure confidentiality. They did not want publicity or the intrusion of spectators. Their logic was that a closed search protected the privacy of applicants. It allowed trustees to conduct a smooth, streamlined search without the uncertainty of awkward pauses, run-on sentences or foregone conclusions. A closed search was a safe search, as it reduced the prospects for injuries to candidates, such as bruised egos, stage fright or loss of self-esteem.

My dream turned into a nightmare when some campus athletic directors and finance officers disagreed with the search firms. They warned that a closed search meant a loss of projected sports revenues. If the college trustees did not sponsor open visits and public presentations by candidates, the college would forfeit ticket sales and broadcast rights to the high-stakes speaking engagements that could be held in a university’s basketball arena. These events featuring outstanding presidential applicants had the potential to attract large members of the university community, including faculty and staff members, students, and alumni.

Scattered throughout my dream about the presidential search debate entries were procedures transplanted from varied sources. For example, the ecclesiastic or “cathedral” model proposed to rely on closed, confidential sessions, with white smoke versus black smoke used to signal that a winning candidate had been chosen. Judges deducted points because the format violated EPA regulations about air pollution. They commented that although the white versus black smoke symbolism worked for the College of Cardinals, it was not right for colleges of America that were complicated by shades of gray in their mission statements.

The Business Model Team vs. the Political Model Team

Fortunately, I woke up and came to my senses. My determination in this article is to bring some clarity to the discussions of academic searches to all concerned groups inside and outside the campus community. Each college’s Board of Trustees must decide for itself what is appropriate. But what I can present now is some historical and logical perspective that might be useful for understanding the consequences and limits of each option.

To understand the game of presidential searches, you have to consider the larger issue of an institution’s governance. If a university relies on shared governance in academic affairs, it is reasonable to extend this principle to its presidential searches.

The recent debates about presidential search have come down to the business model team trying to oust the political model team. The predictable joust is the rhetorical question “Why can’t a college be run more like a business?” Implicit and explicit in this challenge is the claim that a closed search is efficient in its streamlined protocols that allow a Board of Trustees to identify and then introduce the candidate with the right stuff. After all, isn’t a university president comparable to a corporate CEO? In addition, since an open search for a CEO is no way to run a business, it stands to reason that it is no way to run a campus.

The political model team has responded by going on the offensive, claiming that efficiency in the search process is no guarantee of effectiveness. Their counterargument to the corporate crew is that a college or university president is comparable to the mayor or governor of a city-state, not to a business CEO. They’ve elaborated that higher education presidents frequently have to deal with legislators and other elected officials. Most of a president’s time spent in Washington is with representatives from the political sector, ranging from federal agency officials, congressional staff, lobbyists and representatives of higher education associations. Such negotiations are more political than businesslike in character.

An essential plank in the business model platform is that a college is a corporation and that responsibility and authority for ultimate decision making is vested by law in an external Board of Trustees. But what many accounts of presidential searches fail to point out is that it is customary to have two distinct committees with different, defined roles: the search committee and the selection committee. The search committee tends to interviews, screening and detailed evaluation, but it does not pick the president. Rather, its work is done when it recommends a list of finalists to the selection committee.

The selection committee, usually composed exclusively of board members, makes the final decision as to whom the board should offer the presidential job. It’s an important distinction because the separation of duties means that the search component -- including open public talks by several candidates -- does not at all intrude on the Board of Trustees’ ultimate power to decide who is president.

Further, even though a Board of Trustees is a closed body, it is not infallible as a source of consensus and reasonable discussion. In recent years, boards of trustees have squabbled with other corporate parts of their universities, such as the research foundation or the alumni society.

The political model team has criticized the business model team because academic institutions are not really “knowledge factories.” They are loosely coupled units in which the main aim of the presidential office is to be the external spokesperson and to provide basic central services -- such as the infrastructure of roads and rules in which academic areas such as engineering, arts and sciences, medicine, and fine arts can pursue their teaching, research and service. Talk and discussion across boundaries are an institution’s lifeblood.

The business model also is suspect because it perpetuates a management-labor profile of the president and board versus the faculty. Such a dichotomy misreads the distinctive structure and culture of an academic institution in the United States.

I’ve concluded that the political model has gained credibility because it effectively invokes the American tradition of public discourse. The president of an institution, whether officially public or private, is a public figure. The ability to speak, discuss and even debate in various public forums is essential. Therefore, the requirement of an open search and campus visits included the premise that oratory is a preview for the job ahead. If a presidential candidate does not have to face the campus communities and answer questions to land the job, why would one plan to have such public sessions and speaking engagements once inaugurated into the presidential office?

If the search process is a preview for presidential performance, the open search and public presentation made sense. An important role for a college or university president is to persuade. That is hard to do in secret. So why not invite the entire campus community to listen to several candidates who are finalists?

Bio

John Thelin is a professor at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education (new third edition published by Johns Hopkins University Press in April 2019).

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