Representatives from three national firms will meet in closed session with the University of Missouri Board of Curators this morning to try to convince the board that their firm should handle the university’s search for its next president.
Interviewing the consultants — Heidrick & Struggles of Chicago, Baker Parker of Atlanta and Greenwood & Associates of Miramar Beach, Fla. — is the first step in the process of choosing a successor for Elson Floyd, who announced on Dec. 13 that he will become president of Washington State University.
Today’s session doors could be an indicator of how much public input curators plan to seek throughout the search process. UM general counsel Bunky Wright said that striking a balance between open and closed processes is achievable under Missouri statutes, but that, ultimately, keeping a lid on the process may be in the best interests of both the candidates and UM.
“I think the balance that can be achieved is where the final names become public,” he said. “But as to a public process where the people are talking about the various strengths and weaknesses of candidates, that can be very troublesome.”
Wright and other proponents of closed searches say it is the only way to attract experienced candidates — namely, sitting presidents at other schools. A more open search, in which potential candidates would be publicly identified early in the process, could limit the number of applicants, said Bill Funk, who has led close to 300 searches for top college administrators, including the one that brought Floyd to UM four years ago.
UM already faces a lot of competition as it searches for Floyd’s successor. Funk said four Big 10 Conference schools, as well as Harvard and UCLA, are in the market for new presidents. A search that is confidential until the finalists are chosen is probably the best way to balance public openness with the privacy most candidates crave, Funk said.
“If it’s going to be open at any point in time prior to that, it’s going to be a lot harder, almost impossible, to get sitting presidents to enter the pool,” he said.
Still, he said, an open search does not necessarily mean that a university will have a hard time attracting qualified candidates. “You’ll never have as many sitting presidents, but it doesn’t mean you won’t have a great group of people applying for the position,” Funk said. “It just means there’s a certain part of the market that might be disinclined to express interest.”
Wright said the board must also have the freedom to have a candid discussion of the attributes curators would like to see in the next UM president.
“The last time this occurred, when it got down to the last two or three candidates, they came in and were interviewed, and numerous references were contacted before the names were released,” Wright said. “There have been quite a few institutions where (names of candidates) have been revealed. Part of that consideration, though, is whether or not the finalists are willing to let their names be released,” he said.
Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said a closed search will, more often than not, lead to less-than-desirable results.
“It places all the power in the hands of a small group of like-minded people,” he said.
He said none of the arguments in favor of a closed process seem realistic and pointed to MU Chancellor Brady Deaton as an example. In 2004, Deaton interviewed for the position of president at the University of Tennessee, where state law required the school to conduct an open search, Davis said. And Deaton’s interview was broadcast over the Internet.
“Almost immediately, the University of Missouri started scrambling for a way to keep him in house,” Davis said.
Other states, including Florida and Texas, have similar legislation.
“Not a single one of those institutions has fallen off into the ocean,” Davis said. “And in almost all of those cases, (the law) came on the heels of a disastrous decision.”
Open or not, hiring a consultant makes sense for UM, said former Board of Curators president John Mathes. The pool of candidates is deeper when a consultant is used, and the connections that recruiters have to members of the higher-education community and other potential candidates is an advantage.
“They have ready contacts that they have made throughout their careers,” he said. “And they know as people come and go, who might be interested and who can be contacted as a potential candidate.”
No details about the search will be released until after today’s meeting, said Curator Don Walsworth.
“The board is going to be completely engaged and, of course, we’ll make an effort to engage students and faculty on some level,” Walsworth said. “We’re just in the infancy of this search. The board has not even developed a profile or decided on what type of salary to look at.”