Thursday, March 27, 2008


How Not to Conduct a Presidential Search

An alert reader sent me a link to these articles in the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, detailing the goings-on in the Presidential search at Monroe Community College.

I've seen a lot, but this is impressive.

The current President of MCC is stepping down at the end of this academic year. To find a replacement, the MCC Board of Trustees established a process by which a search committee would winnow down the applicant pool, using criteria given by the Board, and put forward the few best candidates. At the end of the process, the committee put forth two candidates, both current Presidents of other community colleges.

The Board then added two other candidates to the list. Both are local, prominent Republicans who have never worked full-time in higher education. One of them is an attorney and former local (Republican) legislator. The other owns several dozen Burger King and Friendly's franchises, and teaches a few adjunct classes. (The Board is controlled by the Republican party, as is the county government.) The Board is claiming that it's trying to highlight the importance of local candidates.


There's an argument for local candidates, but the time to address that is in the beginning of the process, when the Board draws up its charge to the search committee. If it wants to prefer local candidates, or candidates from the for-profit sector, or candidates with political connections, it could include those criteria in the list it gives to the search committee.

Alternately, if the Board found the search committee's recommendations unacceptable, it could either toss them out and start the process over again – the honest option – or make intentionally weak offers to the two candidates, announce a failed search, and start over again – the weaselly option.

But at this point, the Board has painted itself into a corner.

Now that it has named two alternates to the list of finalists, none of the possible scenarios look good. If it decides to go with one of the original finalists anyway, it will look like it caved, and will embolden antagonistic forces on campus. If it goes with one of the late additions, the newbie will have been set up to fail. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see one or both of the original finalists withdraw his candidacy at this point, based on not wanting to work with a Board as amateurish as this one. At that point, the only reasonable thing to do – and I wouldn't hold my breath – would be to admit a failed search and start again.

At best, maybe both of the newbies withdraw, and one of the originals decides to take the high road and accept the job anyway. But even if the candidates somehow conspire to save the Board from itself, it will still have damaged its own credibility severely.

Presidential searches are high-stakes. A bad decision can hurt a college for years. If the bad decision was the result of a consensus, or at least of a broadly-accepted process, the damage can be easier to contain. But to put an entire college through an extensive process, and then to just coronate a crony anyway, does damage independent of how the crony eventually performs.

Boards of Trustees are a risky business in themselves. Most of the time, the majority of the membership has never worked full-time in higher education, and often has only a vague sense of how things actually work. But it has tremendous power, when it chooses to use it. That's a dangerous combination, which can lead without much effort to really egregious mistakes. As forehead-slappingly bad as this case is, it's also somehow not surprising.

Good luck to MCC. You'll need it.

The research-intensive university at which I work did something like this several years ago - with predictably bad results. I can't remember all the details, but basically, a candidate with little experience in administration and no experience in the classroom was chosen, despite a search process allegedly designed to uncover the best and brightest. And again, it was a case of Republican patronage. We're now stuck with a President who has done nothing except re-organize the colleges and departments in response to some problem that only he/she saw. As a result, we've lost approximately 20% of our full-time, tenured faculty, and enrollment is down.

And what about our Board of Trustees? They might have lost some respect and prestige, but in general they just don't care. The Board's Chair has repeatedly expressed contempt for faculty; the Board requested a survey of the President's performance last fall, and then suppressed the results (which can only mean that they must have been really, really bad). It seems to me that Boards of Trustees increasingly operate like corporate boards - meritocracy has been replaced by political patronage.
Will I get free Whoppers if I transfer to MCC?!
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wow. What a joke. I've been a student and employee in higher education for almost 16 years, but never seen anything like this.

Poorly run and/or staffed Boards of Trustees has to be one of the biggest problems in higher education. What's amazing is that, for all the complaining that Board members engage in about politics in the curriculum and among faculty, it's ~Board~ politics that are most disastrous for colleges.

In the end, MCC will get the president it ~deserves~ if not the one it really needs. - TL
My current institution has had long standing issues with the BOT --leading to the lawsuit faculty is now in (and can't afford, as the beg the newbies for lots of money). the members of the BOT is slowly changing so there's hope.

However, I did apply for a job at MCC, oddly enough, if I got it and accepted, I'd be walking into a whole new mess.
Our BoT tried something similar a short while back. The BoT was party to the agreement on the structure of the search committee and the procedure, but when the search committee rejected their fave candidate-- someone who'd managed to resign under pressure/get fired from two separate high-level administration positions at two separate institutions in an 18-month period-- they decided to "modify" the policy and put their candidate back in the pool.

The result was inspiring, in a way, as the BoT succeeded in doing something no other BoT has been able to do in the history of my institution: they united every single faction in opposition to them. Faculty, staff, the administration (secretly), and even the students were screaming bloody murder over their attempt to implant their political crony in the president's office. Each constituency passed a separate vote of no confidence, played it up in the local press, and furiously lobbied the "friendly" members of the board in private. In the end, the BoT blinked. Their candidate, backed by local Democrat politicos, withdrew. I guess it became obvious that the job would be much harder than expected, and would probably result in yet another resignation under pressure.

A few months later, the political wing of the faculty union narrowly missed unseating one of the worst BoT members. Though that candidate was able to retain the seat, the race was expensive enough to get the attention of all the other members of the board.

I think one of the best remedies to this kind of nepotism is a faculty union with a significant amount of money in their political fund.
Not that unusual, and, according to the CHronicle getting less so. Look at what happened at West Virginia University last year. The Chronicle, however, last fall seemed to think this is the wave of the future.
Selective Outrage.

How Quaint!

I must have missed the numerous posts about "pseudo academic appointments" going to Al Gore, Donna Shalala, etc. ad nauseum . . .

I would argue that appointing political cronies as *actual faculty members teaching in the classroom* is more damaging to the mission of the university than making a similar appointment to some glad-handing fund-raising administrative position.

What does a University President *do,* exactly?

What qualifications do we seek in a University President?

Larry Summers, meet Ward Churchill?!?

[brings to mind the no-longer-interesting-because-they-are-so-obvious content analysis studies of newspaper reports that always use party affiliation when party X member is even remotely associated with something "bad" but somehow never when party y member does something bad and vice versa for good news]
Um, I'd think I could learn a lot from Al Gore about a number of topics, especially about modern methods of communication and persuasion.

Newt Gingrich, too, though in an entirely different way.
So, Dean Dad, these are the people you want to have in charge of approving those five-year renewable faculty contracts you propose in place of tenure?
I had to respond to the following from yet another confused professor:

"I must have missed the numerous posts about "pseudo academic appointments" going to Al Gore, Donna Shalala, etc. ad nauseum . . . "

I won't comment on Al Gore because I don't know enough about whatever appointment he had to comment. However, yet another confused professor needs to do his/her homework about Donna Shalala. Before she was appointed to the department of Health and Human Services, she was a respected with multiple publications who once headed part of the University of Wisconsin system. She cut her teeth in Academia and, no surprise, U of M was happy to get her when she finished her public service in the Clinton administration!
WOW - and I thought we in the So. Orange CCD had the board from hell.

Thanks for the perspective - it could indeed be worse.

Thanks very good.
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