The University of Minnesota’s ongoing search for a new president has been the subject of media scrutiny ranging from concerns about transparency, its reliance on a search firm and a search committee that includes only three representatives from the Board of Regents among its members, and, most recently, its relatively meager number of applicants. Via a search firm, the University has decided to move forward with a pool of 60 applicants, in comparison to the 150 applications it received in 2010. These potential missteps highlight some valuable lessons for trustees when choosing a new president.
ACTA has long held that the entire board of regents should be involved in the search process, or should at least have access to every application. (The University of Minnesota’s search committee plans to screen and limit the number of candidates that the board will consider.) Choosing a new president is one of the most important functions of a board. Involvement from the entire board allows for a diversity of opinion and best serves the public interest because board members understand the communities they serve. An effective president must be able to work in close collaboration with the board in order to carry out the strategic vision of the university. In the absence of these important considerations, the University of Minnesota’s selection process is likely to overlook some of the necessary “intangibles” that are so critical for choosing a president who will work well with the board and fulfill the institution’s mission.
Furthermore, presidential searches that set hard targets for credentials, like seniority or academic experience, risk missing out on exemplary candidates. Leaders from other sectors, like business or government, often make for great presidents and are too often ignored. Former U.S. Senator Paul Trible, for example, transitioned from a career in public service to become a very successful president at Christopher Newport University. Large search firms, in particular, have a reputation for sticking to the status quo and often recycle applicants from past searches. A search committee that is insulated from the board, paired with the use of a search firm and a lack of community involvement, is unlikely to select a groundbreaking leader.
Greater board involvement could also help ameliorate the low turnout of applicants. Regents are often appointed based on their professional and civic contributions. As public figures, they have wide networks to draw from and could help expand the pool. The next president will likely determine the long run trajectory of the University of Minnesota, so it is important that the board has a wealth of applicants to choose from, and makes its selection wisely.