Let's (Not Quite) Call the Whole Thing Off
Failed presidential searches can cause disharmony and embarrassment for academic institutions, so it’s perhaps of little surprise that some colleges would rather “extend” or “continue” a search than declare it truly dead.
Just this week, a Michigan community college announced the extension of a presidential search, and faculty leaders at Old Dominion University have suggested they’d like to do the same.
At Grand Rapids Community College, trustees voted unanimously Monday night to extend a presidential search, hoping to broaden the pool of candidates. But the board stopped short of declaring the current search a failure, saying they welcome three previously selected finalists to remain “active candidates” in a search that has now been indefinitely extended.
“It isn’t as though we were saying, 'You guys are not good enough,'” Gary Schenk, chairman of the board, said of the finalists.
Grand Rapids trustees had been eager to put a new president in place by fall, but the board decided that this goal made it difficult for faculty and community members to participate in interviews that occurred over the summer, Schenk said.
At Old Dominion, the leader of the university’s Faculty Senate has called for a presidential search to “continue,” because the Senate’s executive committee found two finalists to be “unacceptable.”
“We felt that stronger candidates could be identified and therefore the search should continue,” Paul Champagne, the Senate’s chairman, wrote in a mass e-mail to his colleagues.
Champagne could not be reached for comment, but he told The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk that it made sense to keep John Broderick in the seat of acting president until better candidates could be identified.
“We don’t see any reason to go forward with this thing unless we’re really sure,” he told the newspaper. “A year, or even a little more, wouldn’t be a problem.”
Marc Jacobson, rector of Old Dominion's Board of Visitors, did not respond to an interview request.
Jean A. Dowdall, a leading executive search consultant, said it’s not uncommon for colleges to stop short of calling a search a failure.
“I think there is a wish to not publicly describe anything associated with the institution as a failure, especially a presidential search,” said Dowdall, vice president of Witt/Kieffer and author of Searching for Higher Education Leadership. “The institution is probably using the language intentionally to shape an impression.”
In some cases, however, it seems that a search really has to be declared dead before healing can begin. Such was the case at the University of Iowa, where some faculty expressed great disappointment with a presidential search process, and the university’s Board of Regents ultimately rejected all of the finalists put forward by a search committee.
Sheldon Kurtz, a law school professor who advised Iowa’s search committee in 2006, said Iowa completely rebooted the search process in hopes of moving forward with a clean slate. The search committee was disbanded and reorganized with greater faculty representation, and a new pool of candidates was considered.
“There were so many problems we had with the way the search was conducted, including who was on the search committee, that simply saying ‘keep them in the pool, go back and try again’ probably would not have worked,” Kurtz said.
Starting from scratch, however, doesn’t come without some cost. As newspapers across the state reported, Iowa’s search to replace David Skorton, who left to become president of Cornell University, cost $315,000 by the time the search was completed in 2007.
Real 'Failure' May Be Bad Pick
Despite the potential criticism, academic institutions are wise not to settle, according to Tom Courtice, president of Academic Search, a firm that handles executive searches in higher education. After all, a truly failed search may not be recognized until well after a new leader has been named.
“I guess I think a failed search is when you get someone in the seat of the president or a provost, and a year or two later it doesn’t work out,” Courtice said.
Courtice added that some institutions prefer not to declare a search failed, because it's important to assure the campus and community that the search for leadership has merely been delayed -- not come to an end. There may also be a legitimate desire to maintain candidates from a prior search in the pool for the next go-around, he said. While some of these prior candidates may move on to other opportunities, Courtice says he's encountered very few who feel so slighted that they refuse to be considered again.
Schenk, chairman of the Grand Rapids trustees, said he wants to extend the college’s search to ensure that a “hasty” decision doesn’t end in a failed presidency.
“We’re gonna get all the blame if we pick wrong,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll get all the credit if we pick right, but I know what happens if we go the other way.”
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