Confidential MU chancellor search follows UM System's history, national trend

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 | 4:50 p.m. CDT; updated 4:05 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 12, 2013

COLUMBIA — Chancellor Brady Deaton's departure gives the University of Missouri System the opportunity to conduct its first full-fledged chancellor search in more than a decade.

In recent history, the MU chancellorship changed hands after limited searching. The UM System Board of Curators ousted Charles Kiesler in 1996 and appointed Richard Wallace as interim chancellor. Wallace landed the chancellor position after a 30-day internal search. Upon Wallace's retirement announcement in 2004, then-UM System President Elson Floyd considered merging the president and chancellor positions.

Floyd ultimately decided not to go through with the merge and bypassed hiring an executive search committee to help select a new chancellor. Instead, he hired Deaton, who was serving as interim chancellor at the time. 

The search for Deaton's replacement will be different. Although the UM System will move aggressively to complete the search before Deaton steps down Nov. 15, it intends to follow a national searching trend by keeping candidate names confidential. 

The UM System has conducted confidential searches before. The curators and a search committee selected current UM System President Tim Wolfe, along with Gary Forsee and Elson Floyd before him, after limited public input. 

A national movement 

Confidential searches allow students, faculty and staff to voice their opinions at public forums, but most of the selection process — winnowing the pool of possible candidates, selecting a handful to be interviewed and ultimately picking one for the job — will take place behind closed doors, with the help of a chancellor search committee, Wolfe and an executive search firm. 

A "closed search," by contrast, would not include public input, said Jan Greenwood, a search consultant with Greenwood/Asher and Associates. The Florida firm assisted the UM System in its 2011 presidential search and Missouri University of Science and Technology in its 2004 chancellor search. 

Confidential searches have been popular at public universities since 1992, Greenwood said.

Rex Campbell, a professor emeritus of rural sociology who has seen five chancellors and eight UM System presidents during his career at MU, said the process of selecting a new leader for a large research I university such as MU can be a challenge. It often involves coaxing high-level administrators out of their positions at other schools. He said that given the sensitive nature of the hiring process, he understands why MU has opted for confidential searches.

"Normally, you’re looking for a person who’s not in the market," Campbell said, reflecting a broadly held view. "It may take a little persuasion for them to become a candidate. If you release a name, it could harm a person’s career."

In addition to MU, several other Association of American Universities institutions, including Pennsylvania State University and University of Michigan, are searching for presidents. Penn State and Michigan each elected to conduct confidential searches.

Increasing turnover 

Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities, said that although the AAU doesn't keep specific statistics on searches, more AAU members have been seeking leaders in recent years. 

"We don't think it is coincidental," Toiv said. "Universities and their leaders are under a microscope."

Toiv said shrinking resource pools and the tough economic climate have made governing public universities a greater challenge than ever before. But many AAU universities still attract a pool of strong executive candidates from inside and outside higher education, he said.

The AAU takes no position on how its member universities should conduct searches. Toiv noted that private universities have long opted for closed searches but said public colleges and universities are often attracted to them because promises of confidentiality can entice more candidates to enter the search pool. 

Greenwood recalled one confidential search in which her clients interviewed 17 qualified applicants, all of whom were university presidents. In a similar open search, none of the applicants who reached the interview stage were presidents at comparable universities. 

"Confidential searches typically draw the most seasoned candidates in terms of track record," Greenwood said, noting that the trend held true in not only higher education but also business and government sectors. "When you have a public search, you often lose that tier of candidates."

Pros and cons 

Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the Missouri School of Journalism, said he finds confidential searches problematic. He said that although he understands releasing names of candidates could put their positions at other universities in jeopardy, he thinks many universities should choose to release the names of a handful of finalists for the public’s consideration.

"Shutting down the whole thing says you don’t trust the public and you don’t value the public’s input enough to make them part of the process," Bunting said.

Missouri open records laws allow — but do not require — records and meetings involving the hiring and promoting of government officials to be closed. Bunting called the UM System’s decision to keep the search confidential disappointing.

"Doing it in the open is not only better policy because it’s better for the greater public good, but it also gives rise to confidence in the system," Bunting said.

Greenwood said the stakes are high for university officials who wish to go public about their candidacy for positions at other institutions. She said jobs, major donations and, in the case of public universities, public funding can be on the line. 

"People prefer to be employed rather than unemployed," Greenwood said. 

Although Greenwood said confidential searches can yield candidates from equally complex universities, it is also "critically important" that universities that select leaders confidentially have strong transition teams in place.  

"It takes extra effort to make sure there is a smooth transition with a confidential search," Greenwood said. 

During two stints as chairman of MU’s Department of Rural Sociology, Campbell hired professors, a process he called markedly different from searching for higher-level positions. The stakes were lower, so Campbell’s professor searches were open. Most candidates were unemployed or seeking a new job.

"It's a sensitive thing, and oftentimes it requires some persuasion," Campbell said about searching for a chancellor.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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