February 2, 2006

Univ. Presidential Duties Affect Search Committees

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In the last half-century, administrative searches in higher education have changed fundamentally.

Committees are bigger and more representative of campus communities. They solicit and select administrators from outside the ivory tower, and, as average administrative tenures become shorter, they convene more frequently.

According to Edward B. Fiske, an education writer and consultant and former Education Editor at The New York Times, the modern university presidency is demanding and daunting.

“It’s a very, very difficult job,” Fiske said. “I’m not sure why anyone would want it. Having said that, it’s really important for a university president to have some sort of an educational vision. Presidents can be influential.”

Today’s university presidents must mingle with alumni, fundraise, supervise campus expansion, answer to regents and trustees and work with students, faculty and staff. In short: they have more to do than ever and a lot of individuals and constituencies to whom they are held accountable.

Fiske counts Cornell’s ninth President, Frank H. T. Rhodes, among a handful of notable university administrators in recent memory who performed well as presidents.

“Rhodes was the kind of guy that other presidents would call up when they had issues to deal with,” Fiske said.

During his 20 years at Cornell’s helm, Rhodes was responsible for important diversity initiatives, capital campaigns and institutional reforms. He helped craft national science and education policy and wrote about the academy in articles and books.

According to Fiske, Rhodes’ heir apparent was Nannerl O. Keohane, who retired from Duke’s presidency in 2004.

“Nan Keohane was the president’s president after Frank Rhodes,” he said.

Keohane, who became Duke’s first female president in 1993, worked tirelessly to improve Duke’s international reputation and influence, reorganize the institution’s healthcare system and better residential life. She capped her tenure with an incredibly successful capital campaign: Duke raised $2 billion.

Prof. Jeffrey Krolik, electrical and computer engineering, joined Duke’s faculty in 1992, and served as a faculty representative on the search committee that selected Keohane’s successor, Richard H. Brodhead, in 2004, only a year after Jeffrey S. Lehman assumed Cornell’s presidency.

“She was a superstar president,” Krolik said. “No question.”

In many respects, Cornell and Duke are similar. They are top-tier academic institutions with world-class hospitals and professional schools. Both schools were founded within twenty years of each other, have similarly large endowments and are among the most selective universities in the country.

There are certainly differences between the two institutions. Chief among them: Cornell has more than twice as many undergraduate students, several of its composite colleges are state funded and hockey is more popular than basketball.

Still, the two places, and the way each chose its most-recent president, are worthy of comparison.

When Keohane announced her resignation in 2003, Duke was an institution-on-the-rise. Under her leadership, Duke lost much of its provincial reputation, hired eminent faculty, rose to the top of US News & World Report’s annual rankings and saw its endowment grow significantly.

According to Krolik, members of the search committee did not have to do too much to sell Duke to prospective presidents.

“It helped to have had a very good past president,” Krolik said. “People don’t want to come in and take over a mess.”

When its search committee began its work last fall, Cornell was hardly a mess, but it was in a much different position.

After Lehman resigned in June 2005, the board of trustees and administration revealed little about the circumstances surrounding his departure to the university community and press. All parties involved signed non-disclosure agreements.

At an open meeting with the presidential search committee in August, members of the faculty worried about how candidates might react to such secrecy.

Prof. Steven L. Kaplan, the Goldwin Smith Professor of History, was among the 200 in attendance.

“How do you speak to people about the future if you don’t talk about the past?” Kaplan asked.

At the meeting, Diana Daniels ’71, chair of the presidential search committee, told Kaplan and his colleagues that the top two finalists for the presidency would be briefed on Lehman’s resignation.

The two search committees had different compositions

At Duke, Krolik sat on a committee of 19 that included eight trustees, six faculty members, two students, one alumni member and two members of the administration (one of whom was non-voting).

At Cornell, there were 24 members: 18 trustees (two student-elected, one faculty-elected and one staff-elected), five members of the faculty and one administrator. The addition of two faculty members came only after the faculty at the August meeting made the demand.

At Duke, unlike at Cornell, a professor helped chair the committee.

Dr. Nancy B. Allen, rheumatology and immunology, Duke, praised her colleagues on the search committee.

“We had a broad and representative committee,” Davis said. “And that was wonderful.”

In early August, Cornell announced that it had chosen Korn/Ferry International, a corporate consulting firm, to help it with its search. In its previous search, Cornell used another firm, Boston-based Isaacson, Miller.

In a news release, Daniels described what role the consulting firm would play.

“The education practice of Korn/Ferry has a strong track record of identifying candidates who are the right ‘fit’ and have the appropriate professional and personal skills to work with members of the university community and lead their respective institutions forward,” Daniels said.

Search firms also make the process easier by handling “a lot off the busy work”, according to Fiske.

Requests for an interview with R. William Funk of Korn/Ferry International were declined.

At Duke, the search committee chose not to employ an outside consultant. Instead, according to Krolik, it relied on current administrators to offer suggestions and contact their colleagues at other institutions.

“They call their counterparts at other universities and ask who might be a good candidate,” Krolik said. “I think that nobody wants to lose somebody good, but they recognize that people will move on as these opportunities come up. People want to be helpful.”

After a year in office, Brodhead seems to have fallen into his position. Krolik was optimistic in his assessment of the new president’s tenure.

“I think that it worked out,” Krolik said. “I hear good things. Brodhead is a very good fit with the other administrators. You can’t predict that. Given the fact that Nan had assembled a very good team, you wanted someone who could fit in. And I hear from people under him that they’re thrilled.”

Archived article by David Gura
Sun Senior Writer