Courtesy of the Evergreen State College
Evergreen State College's presidential search committee identified three well-qualified candidates as finalists: one the provost at a liberal arts college in Wisconsin, another a retired Navy vice admiral with national security experience and the third the leader of a five-campus community college in Arizona.
Shortly after interviews with students, employees and the search advisory committee, all three finalists dropped out.
“To our surprise, one by one, they politely indicated to our executive search consultant that they were no longer interested,” said Karen Fraser, chair of the college’s Board of Trustees.
More than a year into its search, Evergreen State -- a public liberal arts college in Olympia, Wash., that is seeking someone to serve as the seventh president in its 54-year history -- is left with no candidates. George Bridges, current president of the college, will retire in June.
Evergreen State grabbed national headlines in recent years when debate over a former college tradition called the Day of Absence spiraled into protests, counterprotests and threats against a former faculty member. The college later punished some students for their roles in the protests and settled a lawsuit brought by a former professor for $500,000. (This paragraph has been updated to reflect updated details on the past student punishments.)
Meanwhile, the college -- which has no majors, academic departments or grades -- has struggled against a decline in enrollment since the end of the Great Recession.
It's not clear whether recent history, institutional challenges or anything else factored into any of the three candidates' decisions to withdraw from the presidential search. Fraser wasn't told why the candidates dropped out.
“Maybe you can never know unless you can plumb the depths of somebody’s mind,” she said. The board is planning to appoint an interim president and will restart its search for a permanent president in the future.
Evergreen State’s experience highlights how uncertain the presidential search process can be for many colleges. Three presidential finalists walking away from a college in short order is unusual, but Evergreen State it is far from the only institution that’s had to reboot its presidential search at the 11th hour.
West Liberty University, a public university in West Virginia, reopened its presidential search in August after four of five finalists dropped out. The University of Wisconsin system appointed an interim president after its final candidate for the position, Jim Johnsen, withdrew his candidacy.
More often, one or two finalists withdraw from a search at the last minute. Three weeks ago, Stephanie Bulger, vice chancellor of instructional services at the San Diego Community College District, took her name out of the running to become Middlesex Community College’s next president. A week later, Felicia Ganther, associate vice chancellor for student affairs at the Maricopa County Community College District, also withdrew her candidacy for the same job. While the University of Rhode Island was looking for its next president, one of the two finalists, George Washington University's provost, Brian Blake, dropped out of the search.
While it might be disappointing or exhausting to be left at the altar by finalists for a presidency, colleges and universities that find themselves in such a situation have options, according to Rod McDavis, managing principal at AGB Search.
Where Do You Go From Here?
Pivoting to an interim president when a college had planned to have a search completed is not ideal, but it is often the best option, McDavis said. College officials should take time to reflect on the process and start again in a new academic year.
“There will be a two- or three-month period, a time for reflection, a time to rethink how they might want to proceed going forward,” McDavis said. “Then restart the search at the beginning of the next term.”
Presidential candidates typically drop out for institutional or personal reasons, according to McDavis. Institutional reasons are qualities and characteristics of a college that a candidate may not have known about at the beginning of the search.
“Maybe there are some things that candidates learned as they went through the interview process that they didn’t know before they became candidates -- things they learned about the institution,” he said.
Presidential candidates also withdraw for personal reasons related to their health, family or work, McDavis said.
It’s nearly impossible to predict whether a candidate will decide to withdraw for personal reasons, McDavis said. But search committees can make sure that presidential candidates don’t learn about institutional deal breakers too late in the game. Search committees should set up listening sessions between the external search firm and many campus groups, including faculty, staff and students.
“Whatever you learn about the institution, you try to pass that on to the candidates,” McDavis said. “One way to mitigate candidates not knowing some things that they learn later in the process is by getting as much information about what’s happening on the campus as you can on the front end of the search.”
Whether information about a search is open or closed to the public makes less of a difference, McDavis said.
Fraser, Evergreen State's board chair, noted that part of the reason the college's search has garnered so much public attention is because it’s an open search process at a public institution. Multiple candidates could walk away from a closed search without anyone ever knowing.
“You only know it if it's a public school,” Fraser said. “You have no idea where they do completely closed searches, but our search is open.”
The candidates who chose not to pursue Evergreen State's presidency have yet to say much that will help the college make adjustments when it restarts its search process -- at least publicly.
Catherine Kodat, current provost at Lawrence University and a finalist in Evergreen State’s search, said her decision to withdraw was personal.
“Withdrawing from the Evergreen presidential search was a personal decision, made following a lot of conversation with my family,” Kodat said in an email. “It was not an easy decision. I’m a long-time admirer of the college, and was impressed by the faculty, staff, and students I met with over the course of a very well-run search.”
Lee Lambert, an Evergreen State alum and president of Pima Community College in Arizona, also said his decision to drop out of the search was personal. He started to have second thoughts about leaving Pima during what he called the era of community colleges.
“I have exciting things going on here at Pima, which are all part of why I came here,” Lambert said. “I really had to say to myself, ‘Am I willing to walk away from that?’ And I decided no.”
Lambert had no idea Kodat and the other candidate, retired three-star U.S. Navy admiral Michael Dumont, were also planning to drop out of the search process.
“It broke my heart that all three people withdrew,” Lambert said.