From Mayor to (College) President?

The man in charge of running Westfield, Mass., says he's prepared to lead an institution, but some question his credentials. 
February 9, 2007

If familiarity and name recognition trump all else in Westfield State College’s presidential search, Richard K. Sullivan Jr. has the winning hand.

Sullivan is in his 14th year as mayor of Westfield, Mass., and is well acquainted with the big names in town. He is billing himself as a known commodity and a candidate who can bring stability to the college, which has had several presidents during his tenure in city hall.

“The skill set I have as mayor, which is dealing with 1,100 employees and the general public, running a $110 million-a-year budget and working in public administration, fits well with the requirements of a president," Sullivan said. "A lot comes down to fund raising, which is an ever-increasing part of a college president's job."  

The college released a statement saying that Sullivan was selected as a semifinalist because of his leadership skills, experience in public management and fund raising.

But amid questions about how he made it into the running, skeptics wonder whether Sullivan's lack of higher education experience other than being a student makes him a viable candidate for the presidency. The mayor has an undergraduate degree from Bates College and a law degree from Western New England College, but lacks a Ph.D and has never worked at a college.

Julian F. Fleron, a mathematics professor at Westfield, said from his conversations with students and faculty, an overwhelming number of them object to Sullivan's candidacy.

“He has zero academic experience at any level," Fleron said. "It says in the job description that there are minimal requirements. You can’t even teach here with just a J.D. It seems strange to me that at the oldest co-ed teachers' college in the country, someone who can't teach here passes a test to be considered for the presidency."

Added Stephen Adams, a professor of English: “I’d like to see someone come in who has extensive experience in higher education, so my bent is toward someone who can work with outside constituencies and be familiar with the college itself."  

Of the five semifinalists, Sullivan is the only one with a nonacademic background. The three other remaining candidates are Roger W. Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors and a former president of the State University of New York at New Paltz; Nancy Kleniewski, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Bridgewater State College; and Rod D. Smith, former president of Ramapo College of New Jersey and recent chief executive of the College of the Bahamas. (A fifth candidate, who is president of Northern State University, in South Dakota, dropped out of the running.)

“I’ve been branded as the nontraditional candidate, and it has caused healthy discussion and debate," Sullivan said.

Adams researched the backgrounds of presidents at 10 colleges that Westfield considers to be peer institutions and found that each had academic administrative experience. Prior university management appears nowhere in the job requirements that the Westfield presidential search committee released.

"Quite honestly, and I’ve said this publicly, if the search committee was looking for someone to revamp the curriculum and be from the field of academia, I would not be the right candidate," Sullivan said. "Clearly in the qualifications list it says that the candidate needs to have a terminal degree -- and I have a J.D., which meets that requirement."  

Some of the controversy surrounding the mayor's entry into the field of candidates involves issues of timing. Sullivan said he entered his name into the running early in the search process. But Fleron, the Westfield professor, said that based on conversations with faculty leaders, it's clear to him that the mayor's name was added only after an outside search firm made its recommendations.

That company declined to comment on the search. Neither the chair of Westfield's presidential search committee nor the chair of the college's Board of Trustees could be reached on Thursday.

The search committee will meet next week to consider public feedback before forwarding three finalists to trustees. The college plans for a new president to be in place by July 1.

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