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.