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Hunting the Heads of Headhunters
Florida State University faculty vote "no confidence" in their institution's presidential search firm and open a new front in the battle over picking presidents.
Florida State University’s Faculty Senate is slamming one of higher ed’s top headhunters after the search tilted quickly to favor a well-connected politician.
On Wednesday, the university’s Faculty Senate voted no confidence in R. William Funk, who is leading Florida State’s controversial search for a new president. Funk is head of Texas-based R. William Funk and Associates, which has placed presidents at some of the nation’s largest and most prestigious universities.
The vote of displeasure may be the first of its kind by faculty in a search firm. If faculty elsewhere adopt the tactic, the spread of no confidence votes could further complicate presidential searches.
Funk said he was “taken back” by the vote, which was said to be a close one.
In Tallahassee, Funk’s search quickly narrowed to include only John Thrasher, a state senator and former speaker of the House who is also chairman of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s reelection campaign.
Florida State faculty said that to settle on Thrasher, Funk either ignored the public advice of the university’s presidential search committee or made backroom deals that benefited Thrasher.
"Either way you slice it, Bill Funk is either the responsible party, or he’s a tool – take your pick,” said Michael Buchler, the associate professor of music theory who co-wrote the no confidence measure.
Faculty accuse Funk of several moves that helped Thrasher become the sole candidate until the university reopened its search this week amid mounting criticism.
Buchler said Funk disregarded a search committee directive that the job posting make clear Florida State was looking for “distinguished intellectual stature” and “strong academic credentials.”
In response, Funk said that was “just a brief announcement,” not the full job description, which he said had been posted on the search website.
Funk had no comment about other faculty allegations that he downplayed their desire for academic candidates.
Second, though Funk told the search committee that strong candidates only apply near the application deadline in states like Florida with open-records laws, the application deadline was removed from the presidential search website. Funk said the change was made by the university and was a “clerical situation.”
Buchler said Funk had either ignored the search committee’s advice given during public meetings, acted without their consent, or spoken privately to others and decided to change plans.
When few candidates applied who were obviously qualified to run the 41,000-student university, Funk suggested the university interview only Thrasher, who is a former chairman of the Florida State Board of Trustees.
In an interview Thursday, Funk said Thrasher was overshadowing the search process and discouraging applications, so the best way to proceed was give Thrasher an up-or-down vote before conducting a "real search" with a “clear playing field” if Thrasher didn’t get the job.
“We did not want to conduct a search that was not a real search, to go through a whole process and have – three or four months later – John Thrasher selected,” Funk said.
Before the university reopened the search, more applications also came in, including one from Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Rick Polston and state House Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda.
Edward Burr, the Florida State trustee who is leading the search committee, said the vote was “unexpected and disappointing” because he asked Funk this week to “re-energize his efforts” to search for more applicants. Burr said he heard that three faculty senators who also serve on the presidential search committee spoke against the resolution.
“Mr. Funk has my full and utmost support in this search,” Burr said in an email.
The Florida State search is not the first time Funk has been part of a search that faculty criticized for narrowing in on a well-connected politician rather than an academic. Funk said two past searches in particular became a “lightning rod” for Florida State faculty, though he said only three of his 400 presidential searches have settled on a political figure.
In 2012, a Funk-led search for Purdue University -- in which many professors stressed the importance of hiring someone with an academic career -- ended with the selection of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who took office the next year when his term ended.
In 2002, Funk also helped Florida State settle on another politician as president, Thomas Kent (T.K.) Wetherell, though Wetherell, a former House speaker, had been president of Tallahassee Community College before he took over Florida State.
“To be honest, I’m not sure why this vitriol is focused on us,” Funk said, "except for the T.K. Wetherell and Mitch Daniels deals – and what I perceive to be the faculty’s great concern about a political figure there being the president.”
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 at WVU said a president with an academic background might have prevented the scandal.
The Faculty Senate vote at Florida State could add a new dynamic to the presidential search process, making not just university officials but outside consultants the object of formal faculty scrutiny during controversial searches.
“I think what it says is that search firms are responsible for the process that they recommend a board and search committee use to conduct a search -- and I think rightly so,” said James Ferrare, the managing principal at AGB Search, which has sparred publicly with Funk in the past.
AGB worked on the controversial search at the College of Charleston, which ultimately settled on Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell, despite critics who said McConnell’s promotion of Confederate history and lack of experience leading a college could damage the institution’s reputation. The Faculty Senate in Charleston then voted no confidence vote in the trustees, but specifically accused them of disregarding AGB’s advice. Despite political pressure, AGB managed to help Charleston's search committee produce a list of credible candidates for the job before the public liberal arts college’s trustees reportedly ignored the search committee, which did not recommend the politician -- who has never worked in higher education -- for president.
Funk said the approach he tried to take at Florida State differed from the College of Charleston search
“We could have just done it the way they did it at the College of Charleston and people would react after the fact,” he said.
In the past, some states have sought to rein in the use and influence of headhunters like Funk, as well as to control costs. In 2012, Illinois lawmakers forbid universities to use taxpayer or student money to hire search firms.
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