Search for next UM president is sharpened

If spurned again, curators will offer the position to a second choice.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007 | 7:46 p.m. CDT; updated 8:13 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

University of Missouri System curators now plan to interview presidential finalists at least twice before making a job offer — a precaution seemingly designed to avoid being spurned by candidates who get cold feet.

That was the case in early June, when New Jersey business executive Terry Sutter, the board’s top candidate, rejected an offer in favor of becoming chief operating officer of a Florida steel manufacturer.

Days later, Board of Curators Chairman Don Walsworth informed his colleagues that the search process would be changed, according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press under Missouri’s public records law.

Walsworth, other curators and Atlanta-based search consultant Jerry Baker could not be reached for comment Tuesday. They have largely declined to publicly discuss the confidential search.

Other higher education experts monitoringthe Missouri vacancy called the added layer of screening a positive change.

“This is like a marriage,” said Jon McRae, a search consultant also based in Atlanta but not involved with the Missouri search. “The more you know about the candidates, the better chance that relationship will succeed.”

At their most recent meeting in St. Louis two weeks ago, curators interviewed four candidates, the records obtained by the AP show. Candidate names mentioned in e-mails among curators were blacked out in the copies provided.

But althoughthe candidates’ names remain closely guarded, the e-mails shed some light on the search process.

Curator Warren Erdman, a Kansas City civic and business leader, passed along the names of two possible candidates, including one woman, provided by a counterpart in the Kansas City business community.

Should the board’s top candidate again reject a job offer, the preferred approach will be to make a deal with the second choice among finalists, according to Walsworth’s June 12 memo.

That was not the case the first time around, when U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, a Columbia Republican who joined Sutter and one unnamed person as finalists, wasn’t offered the hometown job.

Although the search remains private, the public nature of Sutter’s rejection and Hulshof’s much-speculated candidacy offered a window into the potential pitfalls of the modern university presidential search, said one higher education observer.

“For someone not in the public sector or academia, it’s not unusual to say ‘No,’” said Rick Skinner, a senior vice president with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. “That happens all the time in the business world. It’s just that when you say no in such a public setting, it can be an embarrassment.”

Curators are scheduled to meet next in Columbia in early October. At their most recent regularly scheduled meeting in July, Walsworth said he hoped to have finalist interviews arranged with a 19-member advisory panel by the end of August.

The panel consists of a group of professors, students, alumni, retirees and non-faculty employees from the Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia and Rolla campuses.

The next president will replace Elson Floyd, who left in April for a similar job at Washington State University. Curators quickly appointed Gordon Lamb, a former president of Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and acting chancellor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, as interim president.

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