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Obey golden rule of openness in U of I search

Steve Collins and Carroll Reasoner

Des Moines Register

November 29, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

The search for and selection of a new president is an important event in the life of a university. It is so important that the history of a university is often demarcated by the arrival and departure of its presidents. The search process is the one process in the academic life of a university that captures the interest not only of the entire university community but of alumni and the public at large.

Such an important process deserves a golden rule. Our golden rule for presidential search committees is "make the search process as open as possible while keeping the names of candidates as secret as possible until the time of on-campus interviews."

Adhering to the golden rule increases campus and public confidence in the outcome of the search, a result that is critically important to a newly appointed president. It also improves the effectiveness of the search by getting more people involved in the decision making.

A search committee makes many important process decisions that can and should be made in open session at public meetings and reported in the press.

The most important of these decisions relates to the criteria to be used in evaluating candidates. These criteria might take the form of a list of desirable general attributes that each candidate should possess in high measure, a set of specific attributes in which the candidates should have an outstanding ability and a list of personal qualifications that the committee regards as indispensable.

Since the criteria form the basis on which the search committee will screen candidates and evaluate finalists, the Board of Regents usually wants to approve the criteria developed by the committee.

Another important decision made by the search committee concerns the procedure for winnowing the pool of prospects to a group of 12 or so to be interviewed privately off-campus, then again to about six candidates to be invited for public interviews on campus and finally to a group of four finalists whose names are sent forward to the regents. These winnowing procedures are critically important since the board will almost invariably be faced with the choice of either appointing one of the finalists that result from the winnowing process or starting the search over.

The search committee also develops a position description, designs a campaign for soliciting nominations, makes decisions on procedures for interviewing references and conducting background checks on candidates and determines the timing and structure of off-campus and on-campus interviews.

The chairs of the 1995 and 2002 University of Iowa presidential search committees were advised by the attorney general's office that the search committee was a governmental body and needed to comply with the Iowa open-meetings law.

The chairs were also advised by that office how to comply with the open-meetings law, and they followed that advice. All discussion of process issues was held in open session at a public meeting in the presence of the press.

These open search processes, which led to the appointments of Mary Sue Coleman and David J. Skorton, were widely regarded both on and off campus as successful.

To our knowledge, recent presidential searches at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa have also complied with the Iowa open-meetings law.

It is particularly important in public universities, where taxpayers expect to understand the basis and rationale of governmental decisions, to adhere to the golden rule for presidential searches. Iowans would have been better served and the outcome might have been different had the board leadership chosen to do so in the recently failed U of I presidential search.

STEVE M. COLLINS is a professor of electrical and computer engineering, a former president of the Faculty Senate, and chair of the 1995 U of I Presidential Search Committee (Mary Sue Coleman search). CARROLL J. REASONER is an attorney with Shuttleworth & Ingersoll PLC in Cedar Rapids, a former chair of the U of I Foundation, a lifetime honorary board member of the Law School Foundation and a member of the 2002 Presidential Search Committee (David J. Skorton search).