At Friday’s special meeting of the Board of Regents, the next president of the University stood out as the man with the biggest beard in the front row. But short of that, very few members of the audience knew who he was before the regents proposed his appointment.
Secrecy has become a staple of a university presidential search, with the hunt for the 14th president being no exception.
The announcement of Brown University Provost Mark Schlissel as University President Mary Sue Coleman’s successor came as a surprise to most, defying many predictions of possible candidates.
Business senior Michael Proppe, Central Student Government president, said he learned of the choice at the same time as the rest of the University community.
“That is the first time I’ve heard his name,” Proppe said. “I’m getting good at pronouncing it.”
Even now, most details about the process, negotiations and other candidates considered in the nearly yearlong search will likely not be released.
“We don’t really discuss anything related about the inner workings of the search process in that respect,” Regent Katherine White (D), head of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee, said Friday.
The University contracted the executive search firm Russell Reynolds in June to assist in identifying potential presidential candidates after Coleman announced her plan to retire in mid-2013.
According to documents obtained by The Michigan Daily through a Freedom of Information Act Request, the University hired the firm in May for $300,000 excluding any additional expenses. The contract also included a $7,500 flat cost recovery charge for expenses such as courier fees, copying and online research.
The firm’s associate expense report through the third quarter—which includes only a selection of expenditures through September 2013—totaled $12,250.69.
Alison Ranney and Ilene Nagel were the chief Russell Reynolds associate consultants assigned to the University’s presidential search. The documented expenses for their cross-country search included airfare—specifically, flights to Chicago, Baltimore and Houston—hotel stays, car services and private meals with potential candidates.
On September 6, Nagel had “breakfast with candidate for U” for $72.06—the only mention of such a meeting in the reporting available.
The University redacted much of the expense report to make it difficult to determine the identity of candidates they were considering. Reports for expenses, including the month leading up to the breakfast with a candidate, were not included in the FOIA response.
Ranney declined to comment for this article.
Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a non-profit organization that works with faculty, alumni and donors at colleges across the United States, said search firms should be used only for logistical purposes, while the majority of the search should be conducted by the board.
“It certainly has become a prevailing practice across the country to rely very strongly on these executive search firms and sometimes there is an over reliance on them which tends to result in a more conventional kind of choice,” Poliakoff said.
Secrecy also helps to assemble the strongest applicant pool, Barry Toiv, Association of American Colleges and Universities spokesman, said.
“Some applicants would be unwilling to come forward if it meant making public the fact that they were seeking another job without any certainty of actually getting the job—which is true of most jobs,” Toiv said.
But Poliakoff said the benefits of secrecy also lend themselves to the candidate’s advantage.
“When you have secretive searches, the candidates are in a much better position to basically shop and look for positions that are more rewarding in one way or another,” Poliakoff said.
“And by not having to make a public commitment to their candidacy, that again strikes me as more and more of the movement towards the corporatization of executive leadership in higher education.”
Internally, the search committee gathered input within the University from all corners of campus to help them understand what the community as a whole was looking for in a president.
The announcement of the committee last July came with objection from members of the Senate Assembly and students, both of whom weren’t represented on the committee.
At a Senate Assembly meeting on Sept. 23, members of SACUA—a nine-member faculty executive committee elected by the Senate Assembly—expressed disappointment that they weren’t added to the search committee.
“The final committee did have faculty but we did try to distinguish between regular faculty and faculty who are in administrative positions,” said Engineering Prof. Robert Ziff, a SACUA member. “We felt there should be regular faculty in the search.”
Students also expressed dissatisfaction with their exclusion from the committee, especially since University alum Matt Nolan, the 2002 Michigan Assembly president, was included during the last presidential search.
Proppe said he was surprised there was no student on the search committee, but believed the forums would provide sufficient input.
“I would’ve loved to see student representation on the search, but that being said, I’m pleased the Board of Regents was able to hold a lot of forums with members of the community,” Proppe said.
In an interview on Sunday, Andrea Fischer Newman, chair of the Board of Regents, said the search was more intense and more involved than any of the previous two presidential searches that she participated in.
However, she said this was the first search in which the regents were involved in the entirety of the search, rather than simply voting from a selection of finalists presented by the search committee.
Since the regents decided to participate in the whole search process this time around, Newman said the search committee was confined to faculty to prevent the group from becoming too large.
Multiple forums were held in September and October and many students and faculty spoke before members of the search committee about what they hoped to see in the next president.
LSA freshman Benjamin Cher spoke at the Sept. 27 forum about the need for a new president to allocate resources to various departments more efficiently, though he said he was appreciative of the opportunity given to him.
“There were some speakers at the forum who went up to the microphone and said ‘I do not wish to thank you for the right to speak because I know I have the right to speak and I should expect this’—and I think that’s the wrong attitude,” Cher said in a Friday interview. “I am grateful for the fact that this exists and that someone like me is able to express their opinion.”
Without a student on the search committee, CSG posed a six-question survey to students in mid-September to garner a sense of what students hoped to see in the president.
“We might have incidentally set a new precedent throughout presidential searches,” Proppe said.
“We were able to collect feedback from hundreds of students, actually about a thousand students about what the students wanted in the next president.”
In an interview Sunday, Schlissel outlined the chronology of the search process, which for him began in October and lasted through much of the fall.
Schlissel first met the search committee in New York City, where he sat at the head of a long wooden table and answered questions from the regents and committee members.
“After a few minutes, it stopped being an interview and felt like a conversation between colleagues,” Schlissel said.
The second meeting also occurred in New York City, where Schlissel met with small sub-groups of search committee members. From hotel suite couches, the regents questioned Schlissel on a series of topics, both specific to the University and on broader higher education issues.
After the second interview, Schlissel made his first visit to Ann Arbor in late November where he toured campus with Regent Lawrence Deitch (D) and Regent Mark Bernstein’s (D) wife, Rachel, before having dinner that evening at Regent Denise Ilitch’s home.
Before receiving the news of his selection, Schlissel fielded phone calls from various regents leading up to the decision.
“It was very conversational. They were probing the way I thought about various issues,” Schlissel said.