Trustees | Trusteeship

When universities conduct president searches in the dark, the results can be a disaster

COURIER-JOURNAL   |  October 4, 2017 by Andrew Wolfson

When Robert Sternberg was hired in 2013 as University of Wyoming’s 24th president, the state Senate president called him a “rock star.”

But he was selected without faculty or student input and was forced to resign 137 days later.

Sternberg, who had driven away deans and thrown the school into chaos, admitted the 131-year-old university in Laramie “might not be the best fit for me.” Wyoming’s board of trustees also acknowledged it had made a mistake and voted unanimously to conduct its next presidential search in the open.

After the University of Louisville’s board announced it will try to find a replacement for ousted President James Ramsey through a search in which the names of finalists will be kept secret, the Courier-Journal examined other confidential quests. It found that while some have produced successful presidents, others were disastrous.

  • At the University of Tulsa, for example, after a confidential search led by the same headhunter the University of Louisville hired, President Geoffrey Orsak was fired in 74 days.
  • At Maryland’s public honors university, St. Mary’s College, President Joseph Urgo resigned two years after he was hired, as enrollment plummeted so drastically it put the school’s future in jeopardy.
  • At the University of New Mexico, Washington banker John Elac – a friend of the school’s search consultant – quit on his second visit to campus, before his contract was even signed, when an enraged faculty challenged his credentials.

University search consultants, including Bill Funk, who the University of Louisville is paying up to $170,000 to find Ramsey’s successor, say private searches are essential to recruit respected sitting university presidents because none will throw their hat in the ring if they know they will be outed.

Florida-based headhunter Jan Greenwood said presidents have been fired for their disloyalty when their names turned up in another search, and donors have withdrawn multimillion-dollar pledges.

But some scholars who have studied presidential searches say it is impossible to determine if a candidate will be a good fit if finalists are not introduced to the campus community.

“Confidential searches are antithetical to the concept of a public university,” said James Finkelstein, professor of public policy at George Mason University. “Faculty and students should say it is unacceptable for the community to be presented with a single candidate.” 

Finkelstein and Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based research group, said transparency is especially vital at the University of Louisville, after Ramsey’s tenure ended in scandal.

“There should be as much faculty involvement as possible,” Finkelstein said. “That is the only way to remove the stain.”

J. David Grissom, who chairs the U of L board of trustees, announced in a Sept. 15 letter that “after careful consideration and with the input of national experts in higher education, the board has decided to conduct the search in such a way to protect the confidentiality of all candidates.” The decision means names of finalists will not be disclosed, and only trustees will interview them before the next president is announced.

Holding up signs condemning secret searches, 10 faculty members staged a vigil at last Monday’s board of trustees meeting. One of them, Dawn Heinecken, a professor of women and gender studies, said afterward that without a “mandate from faculty, staff and students” for the next president, “the university will not move forward.”

And in a letter to Grissom, referring to the alleged basketball bribery scheme, faculty said the “events of the past week only reinforce the absolute need for transparency and inclusiveness to re-establish trust in the university’s leadership.” 

But Grissom told reporters he wasn’t budging.

Advocates of openness concede that open exchanges with finalists don’t guarantee a successful hire – and that there is no guarantee university boards will heed campus feedback.

After an open search at the University of Iowa, for example, the board of regents in 2015 hired a former IBM executive, Bruce Harreld, over the strenuous objections of faculty, who said other semi-finalists were more experienced and had stronger academic qualifications. The selection prompted no-confidence votes from the faculty senate and student government for a “blatant disregard for the shared nature of university governance,” and a suit is pending to reverse the appointment.

Still, Poliakoff said campus input optimizes the chances for a good fit.

Both sides say the presidential selection process presents “a classic conflict between the right of individual privacy and the public’s right to know,” as the American Association of University Professors puts it.

The group says the search process may involve some confidentiality during the early phases, but to ensure a successful search, nominees recommended that the candidate should visit the campus and be interviewed by the faculty and possibly other constituent groups.

Presidential searches, though, are increasingly being conducted behind closed doors. A study by George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government of 61 search consultant contracts in 2015-16 found that confidentiality was mentioned in every one.

The desire for secrecy has produced cloak-and-dagger high jinks in which candidates are flown in at night on rented private jets and registered at hotels under pseudonyms.

Secret searches have become more prevalent as headhunters have become ubiquitous in the hunt for presidents, deans and provosts, the George Mason study found. Fifty years ago, consultants advised on only about 2 percent of searches, a figure that has risen to more than 90 percent today.

Critics say that confidential searches benefit mostly the headhunters, who can recycle candidates from their Rolodexes without anyone knowing they were passed over for a post.

Detractors also say these searches deprive the university of one of its best potential resources, the faculty grapevine – professors who know colleagues at the candidate’s home school.  “Faculty members are the biggest gossips in the world,” Finkelstein said.

Funk, whose Dallas-based R. William Funk & Associates say it has placed more than 400 presidents and chancellors, said excellent candidates can be recruited both ways and that his firm conducts both kinds of searches.

But in an email, he said it is nearly impossible to recruit a qualified sitting president from a “respected institution” if his or her name might be divulged.

He noted that in recent years, he placed the president of West Virginia at Clemson; the leader of University of California, Irvine, at Ohio State; and the president of Iowa State at Auburn, and that none would have considered entering the searches if they had been public.

Clemson President James Clements, the only one of the three to respond, said through a spokesman that Clemson’s confidential search process “worked well from his perspective.”

Search consultant Jan Asher said the only presidents who enter open searches are ones who have been fired or who work at lesser universities.

And headhunter Michael Baer, who helped Western Kentucky University find a president in January, said the best evidence that open searches produce lesser candidates is Florida – whose sunshine law requires that all candidates be identified. The result, he said, is that politicians have ended up as presidents of several public universities, including Florida State, because experienced academic leaders wouldn’t toss their names in the ring.

Baer warned Western that two-thirds of interested prospects would drop out if their anonymity wasn’t preserved, said Dr. Phillip Bale, the university’s search committee chair who now heads its board of regents.

Still, some universities, including in Kentucky, have decided to risk the loss of some candidates to get more input on campus.

University of Kentucky, looking in 2011 for a successor to President Lee Todd Jr., announced it would disclose the names of finalists, if all agreed to be named. When one declined, UK’s board brought in its “preferred candidate,” Eli Capilouto, then the provost at University of Alabama-Birmingham, for a series of public forums that were live-streamed for those who couldn’t attend. Feedback was also solicited online, and the responses were compiled in a report to the board, which could have rejected Capilouto but named him UK’s 12th president.

Morehead State University, picking a new president in March, also decided to bring in its two finalists for public on-campus interviews – in part “because we felt it would help the president get off to a better start with more input,” said search committee chair Wayne Martin. One of the two finalists dropped out, but the other, Joseph “Jay” Morgan, who had been provost at Murray State, was brought to campus for a visit with students and faculty and eventually hired. 

Even at Western, preferred candidate Tim Caboni, vice chancellor of public affairs at the University of Kansas, was brought in for campus interviews before he was offered the job as Western’s president.

“If he had come to campus and bombed,” Bale said, “we would have gone back for further deliberations.”


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More