DEAR READER: Columbia College displays some sunshine in search for president

Friday, January 3, 2014 | 8:34 p.m. CST; updated 1:42 p.m. CST, Monday, January 13, 2014

Dear Reader,

Columbia College named names when it announced two finalists for president this week. Not so long ago, that would have simply been expected for such a big job, but now it's the exception to the rule in academia.

Scott Dalrymple, dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., and Randall Hanna, chancellor of the Florida College System, will be in town the week of Jan. 12 to be interviewed by students, faculty and the community at large.

I don’t envy the winner. I imagine the job to be more complex in some ways than that of MU’s incoming chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin. Columbia College is a far-flung affair, with 35 campuses, even if many of them are tiny, and an extensive online program. Most exotic locale: Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The college’s enrollment is around 30,000, shy of 35,000 at its higher profile neighbor, MU.

The job is made more challenging because of the success of its predecessor. For 18 years, Gerald Brouder presided over the college’s unprecedented growth, in students and in money. A Missourian article noted that the college’s endowment grew from $2.5 million in 1995 to more than $100 million today.

Tough shoes to fill.

We won’t know the success of the search for the chief executives at Columbia College and MU for months or years. But I’ll hazard one prediction: Dalrymple or Hanna will walk into the president’s office with more buy-in from students, staff, faculty and the community at large.

In both hires, a board makes the final call (trustees for Columbia, curators for MU). In both searches, outside consultants visited constituent groups to map out the kind of leader who might make the best fit. Both search committees were sworn to secrecy. Both cited the need to keep candidates confidential in order to have the best ones apply.

But Columbia College chose to make the finalists public. (There were three finalists, but one took another job in December.) In doing so, it gave everyone involved a voice.

The Rev. John Yonker is the search committee chair. He negotiated with the finalists for permission to make their names, photos and CV’s public. They readily agreed.

Would the choice of finalists be affected had they not given permission? “Probably,” Yonker told me. This final, public step was important, and to more than the search committee.

He said the chair of the board of trustees, Daisy Grossnickle, also insisted there be some time — two weeks, in this case — between announcement and visit.

No surprises. Everyone has time to prepare.

(Missourian reporters will be looking to profile the candidates in the next week. That’s another chance for all of us to get a sense of our visitors. )

After the public visits, everyone who attended a forum or meeting — including those who watch the forums that will be live-streamed to all those other campuses — will have a chance to have their say through a survey.

It’s a refreshing bit of openness, especially for a private institution.

Consider the change in weather just 1 mile south, at the state’s public, land-grant university.

No names were disclosed before Loftin was introduced on Dec. 5. The University of Missouri System’s Board of Curators didn’t release the number of applicants, semifinalists or finalists before Loftin stepped in.

News of his interest might have affected that severance package he received from Texas A&M University System of twice his annual $425,00 salary, according to a Missourian article. But the ink was dry on that deal on Aug. 20.

In other words, at that point, Loftin was a free agent.

I didn't hear a lot of complaints after Loftin was chosen. Maybe that's because he's a swell guy and talented administrator. Maybe it's because people said, oh well, the choice has already been made.

MU chose all secrecy, all the time. Columbia, the little college that could, found a way to honor the candidates and the people they would serve, from janitors to trustees.

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