A Faculty (Led) Search

The University of Wisconsin System gives uncommon authority to professors in chancellor searches.
August 25, 2011

Everyone wants a seat at the table when a campus picks a new leader, and it's rare that groups say they have enough representation. With so many campus constituencies -- including faculty, staff, students, alumni, trustees, and community members -- finding enough seats is tough, and more often than not, faculty members say they're not given their fair share.

And these days, faculty members at some campuses say they are being shut out of the search committees completely.

That's what makes Wisconsin an outlier. The University of Wisconsin System, which is about to begin a search for the next chancellor of its flagship campus in Madison, vests an unusual amount of authority in faculty to determine a search's direction. Board of Regents policy requires the majority of any campus's chancellor search committee be made up of faculty members, and that committee is charged with nominating five candidates. The rest of the committee consists of students, administrators, staff, and community members, but no regents. The search committee then hands the five names off to a special regent committee, which nominates one candidate to the full board.

While the ultimate authority for winnowing down the committee's list vests with that small cadre of regents, the ability to nominate the five names gives faculty wide latitude in the search, observers say, because no one becomes a finalist without approval of the faculty-dominated panel. They also note that it is unusual for a system to not have any members of the governing board sit on the search and screening committee.

The structure of the search committees -- which many in the system attribute to a historic state commitment to shared governance -- is likely to have some influence on the types of candidates who make it to the regents and ultimately end up leading the campuses.

"You've got to think that however you structure search is going to lead to different outcomes," says Kevin P. Reilly, president of the University of Wisconsin system. "Whatever structure you have is going to have strengths and weaknesses."

A look at other major public research university searches currently under way shows the diversity of committee structure and the distinctiveness of Wisconsin’s structure.

  • The University of Vermont’s search committee is the closest in faculty representation to Wisconsin's. Of the 18 members, four are faculty members and three are academic administrators. Trustees hold four seats, other university administrators hold five seats, and the remainder are held by an alumnus and two students.
  • George Mason University is the least similar to Wisconsin of the major public searches under way. Members and former members of the university’s Board of Visitors hold 15 of the 26 seats, while faculty members and academic administrators only hold a combined five seats.
  • The University of Arizona’s 23-member committee includes only one faculty member and one academic administrator. The rest of the committee is composed of trustees, non-academic administrators, alumni, a student, community members, and politicians.

By contrast, the search that just wrapped up for Wisconsin's campus in Superior had a 20-member committee with 11 faculty members, and the recent search at Milwaukee had a 25-member committee with 13 faculty members. Reilly has not determined the membership for the Madison search yet.

Wisconsin faculty members and administrators say the distinctive structure of their search is a function of a state statute that rests significant authority for campus governance in faculty members, and a long history of respect throughout the state for the role of the faculty. According to the statute, "The faculty of each institution, subject to the responsibilities and powers of the board, the president and the chancellor of such institution, shall be vested with responsibility for the immediate governance of such institution and shall actively participate in institutional policy development."

“Wisconsin takes the matter of shared governance seriously, where the role of faculty, academic staff, and students in governing the institution is actually laid out in the state statute,” says Don Mash, former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, who has served as a representative of the system on the search committees for the past three years. “That culture of shared governance is very strong in this state.”

Others attribute the structure of the committees to the structure of the system. Unlike those in some other systems, Wisconsin campuses don't have individual governing boards, so regents oversee the whole system and have less involvement in the day-to-day matters of each individual campus. As a result, it does not make as much sense to have them sit on search committees, officials say.

The Association of Governing Boards advises colleges and universities to make each search committee representative of the institution the leader will represent. Merrill P. Schwartz, director of research for AGB, says it is not unusual to have strong faculty representation on such a committee. "It requires many seats at the table to represent the diversity of disciplines and campuses in the system," she says. But she adds that not having regents on the search committee is rare.

Wisconsin faculty and administrators say the two-tiered nature of the search process, with campuses compiling the list of candidates and regents making the final recommendation, preserves the governing board's authority in the matter.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says the structure of Wisconsin's search committees does a good job representing all corners of campus.

The Wisconsin searches have tended, more than in other states, to produce candidates who were scholars before they became administrators, and who have worked for substantial periods of time in academe. Michael Lovell, the new chancellor of the Milwaukee campus, previously served as dean of Milwaukee's College of Engineering and Applied Science. Renée Wachter, Superior's new chancellor, was previously dean of the School of Business at Truman State University. The few who have not risen through the academic ranks, such as the chancellors of the campuses at Parkside and Platteville, have come from student services. Dean Van Galen, who served as a vice president for university advancement before being named chancellor of the River Falls campus, had a background as a professor. None of the recent hires has come from outside academe.

Madison has an extra policy, not in place at the other campuses, requiring that chancellors be able to obtain tenure.

In recent searches, Reilly has stressed the importance of considering individuals who have skills outside academics. "I tell them: this is not a faculty job you’re hiring. This is a person whose job is not the job you do," Reilly said. "Whoever fills this job has to develop strong networks with a wide range of differently thinking people, including major donors, the chair of the philosophy department, a law school dean, the head of the alumni association, and local government officials."

Mash, who has sat on the search committee six times in the last three years, and who advised the regents committee for several years before that, and who was himself a candidate once, said the structure doesn't lead to similar outcomes, but instead represents the different viewpoints on campuses well. "I've been surprised by the lack of predictable fault lines," he says. "Particularly along faculty vs. regents. You're always going to have people who see things differently, but it's rarely who you'd expect."

Individuals involved in the searches said there is generally strong communication between the faculty members, students, administrators, and community members on the search committee and the regents who winnow down the list and make the final decision. The search committee must also defend the five choices in front of the regents committee. Search committee chairs said it would be unlikely for a committee to bring five names forward that the board disagreed with.

Reilly says other benefits also come from the structure of the search, which not only has broad faculty representation in the search process but also makes finalists' names public. "By the time the final candidate gets named, and when he or she comes then to that campus, he or she already has a huge amount of support, consensus, and goodwill built up," he says. But he adds that making the finalists' names public could drive away some candidates.

Faculty members who have sat on searches said they were generally happy with the way the process is structured. “Chancellors and provosts are really considered part of the faculty, so it makes sense that the majority on the committee would be faculty members,” says Mark D. Schwartz, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who chaired the campus’s recent search.

“Part of the way to judge any process is by looking at its outcomes,” Reilly says. “If you look over time at the chancellors we have been able to hire to run our campuses, the outcomes are pretty good. They’re not perfect. They never are. But the process has yielded strong chancellors who have advanced their institutions and made the reputations of the institutions and the UW system even stronger.”


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