Were the Vetters Vetted?

A controversial pick for U of Iowa's president and a short tenure for an athletics director at Minnesota who is accused of harassment have a search firm in common.

September 17, 2015

An executive search firm that specializes in higher education has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after assisting in two controversial appointments.

The Georgia-based Parker Executive Search assisted in the University of Iowa’s recent presidential search, which led to the selection of businessman Bruce Harreld. The search process has been criticized by students and faculty members, some of whom question Parker’s vetting of Harreld after he revealed his résumé inaccurately listed his current employment.

Parker has also come under fire for helping the University of Minnesota select Norwood Teague as its athletic director in 2012. Teague was ousted in August over allegations that he sexually harassed multiple people, and Minnesota President Eric Kaler faulted Parker for not uncovering a past complaint during the search process three years ago.

“We relied on a firm that claimed they did their due diligence and missed this,” Kaler told Minnesota Public Radio News in August. Kaler told the station Minnesota wouldn't employ Parker for future searches. The firm has also placed football and basketball coaches at the university in recent years.

Laurie C. Wilder, president of Parker, declined to comment on the Iowa or Minnesota searches specifically. Instead, she referenced a letter sent from Parker's attorney to Kaler in August. It says the complaint in question was filed by a female coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, where Teague was athletic director, one month after Teague was hired at Minnesota, and was not over sexual harassment but instead was a complaint that the coach was treated unfairly under Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972.

"Parker Executive Search conducted an extensive and thorough due diligence process for the university," the letter reads.

Parker is well known for placing college athletic directors and coaches. Wilder says the firm has placed some 2,000 people in jobs -- about 80 percent of them in higher education. It has conducted 56 presidential placements, including recent searches for Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.

Given the large number of searches the firm has conducted, Wilder says the “number of searches that have had some level of issue is relatively small.”

The Iowa search has been criticized for different reasons. In that search, Harreld admitted his résumé was inaccurate. It stated that he was currently employed as the managing principal for Colorado-based Executing Strategy LLC, a firm with an expired registration in Massachusetts. Harreld said during an Iowa forum that he let the firm’s registration expire and is now personally liable for his consultancy work.

Many faculty questioned how Parker and Iowa’s Board of Regents missed the error during the vetting process.

“Parker Search doesn't seemed to have vetted it or pointed that out to anyone,” Katherine Tachau, a history professor and president of Iowa’s American Association of University Professors chapter, said of Harreld’s résumé. “He’s self-employed and he’s listing it that way to imply that he actually is an officer in a firm.” Tachau highlighted how "false information on your résumé" is a violation of Iowa's business college's honor code.

Iowa is paying Parker $200,000, plus expenses, for conducting the search. Minnesota paid Parker $90,000 in the search that led to Teague’s hire.

"One would expect if you pay a search firm as much money as we wound up paying them, one would have vetted him better," said one faculty member, who asked not to be named. "We're kind of dumbstruck on how it could happen and how the search firm let it happen. It doesn't give one a lot of faith in search firms."

Some have also questioned whether Parker and the Iowa Board of Regents led a search that was canned from the beginning, since Harreld apparently visited Iowa’s health system during the summer for a lecture and was the only candidate to speak with the state’s governor during the search.

Also scrutinized in the search was the lack of diversity among finalists: all four were white men. Of the 46 people in a “broader pool of candidates,” four were women and 11 were minorities, Josh Lehman, spokesman for the Board of Regents, wrote in an email. Lehman did say more than 100 women were contacted about the position, and 58 declined to apply after a discussion.

Lehman said the board has been “very satisfied” with Parker and is not concerned about Harreld's résumé inaccuracy.

Wilder called Parker’s vetting process “extensive,” and said it included criminal, credit and motor vehicle background checks. Her firm confirms academic degrees, conducts “media reviews for potential areas of concern” and checks employer references. Parker asks candidates to sign a statement of accuracy about their applications and disclose in writing potential issues of controversy and concern.

She declined to comment on the Iowa search specifically, but said the university was provided Parker’s standard vetting services.

“Our job is to aggressively recruit, facilitate and to advise, but we do not have a vote in the selection of anyone. We do not make the hires,” she said. “In all of the searches that we conduct, we pride ourselves on integrity.”

Though the most recent, the Iowa and Minnesota searches are not the only ones in which Parker has come under scrutiny.

Parker assisted in a search for an athletic director at Rutgers University that resulted in the 2013 selection of Julie Hermann. According to a 2013 investigative USA Today article on Parker, the firm failed to uncover accusations that Hermann -- who remains Rutgers’ AD -- had been accused of verbally abusing players when she was a volleyball coach at the University of Tennessee in the 1990s.

USA Today also reported that, in 2006, two months after Parker assisted Indiana University in hiring basketball coach Kelvin Sampson, he was penalized by the NCAA for recruiting violations. In 2010, three weeks after Parker helped place Mike Haywood as the football coach at the University of Pittsburgh, Haywood was arrested on a domestic violence charge and later fired. USA Today reports that Haywood had no history of similar offenses.

The newspaper's report also highlighted the National Collegiate Athletic Association's relationship with Parker, which one sports economist called "the old boys' club." The NCAA used Parker to hire Mark Emmert as its president in 2010. Emmert, who also used Parker when he was president of the University of Washington, then used the firm to fill several other administrative vacancies in the NCAA.


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