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Critics assail price of U of I hunt

Firm's work in stalled president search criticized

Erin Jordan

Des Moines Register

December 3, 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.]

Iowa City, Ia. - The stalled University of Iowa presidential search will cost the U of I far in excess of $200,000, leaving many Iowans wondering what they got for their money.

Faculty members involved in the search said Heidrick & Struggles, a search firm with offices around the world, recruited only one of the top seven candidates, did not do enough to woo minorities, and was obsessed with secrecy throughout the seven months it consulted for the university.

"I just don't think the value added was worth the cost," said Katherine Tachau, a U of I history professor who was vice chairwoman of the campus-based search committee.

Private search firms are becoming the norm for presidential searches at schools across the country. These headhunters, whose clients include universities and administrators looking for new jobs, have been criticized for promoting secrecy for their own gain.

"Search firms constantly have a stable of applicants they run around in circles so they can say they interviewed a host of applicants," said Bob Johnson, president of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. "Their business is to look important and make it look like all this is top secret."

Johnson's group has been involved in two lawsuits in New Mexico since the early 1990s seeking more openness in presidential searches.

The U of I presidential search, launched in the spring, fell apart Nov. 17 when the Iowa Board of Regents voted 6-2 to reject four finalists. The regents will hold a closed-session conference call Monday morning to discuss the search.

The U of I has paid Heidrick & Struggles more than $195,000 in fees for work including consulting and advertising. The contract requires the university to pay the firm one-third of the first-year compensation of the new president.

Among the bills yet to come in is one from the Chicago Airport Hilton, where the U of I reserved 30 hotel rooms and a meeting room that were never used.

The university reserved the rooms to hold candidate interviews Nov. 10 and 11, but Regent Teresa Wahlert, chairwoman of the search committee, decided days before to move the interviews to Des Moines. She feared reporters would come to Chicago and learn the identities of the candidates, search committee members said.

The last-minute cancellation means the U of I will probably have to pay 60 percent of the $4,800 bill at the Hilton, according to the university's contract with the hotel. Wahlert did not return a call asking about the change of plans.

"I think that was an extraordinarily irresponsible waste of money," Tachau said.

Heidrick & Struggles furnished few of the names of potential candidates, faculty members told Des Moines Register reporters and editors Friday. The only top candidate recruited by the firm was Deborah Freund, the former vice chancellor at Syracuse University, who did not make it to the final four, faculty said.

The search firm also did not aggressively recruit minority candidates, Tachau said.

"I nominated African-American women with which contact was not made with Heidrick & Struggles," she said.

Gary Steinke, executive director of the Board of Regents, disputed faculty members' claims about the search firm.

"To say they were only responsible for one candidate is absolutely not true. They performed an absolutely necessary function by talking to a lot of people," he said.

Recruiting diverse candidates was a priority of the board and the search firm, Steinke said. The search committee asked Marcella David, the U of I's associate provost for diversity, to speak about the important task, and Heidrick & Struggles brought in a diverse pool of applicants, he said.

"They went beyond the call," he said.

Heidrick & Struggles has referred calls about the search to the board.

Bill Funk, a top university headhunter who has his own firm in Dallas, said search firms must build trust with faculty members by explaining what they do. Funk was the consultant who led the U of I searches that resulted in hiring former presidents Mary Sue Coleman and David Skorton.

"The business has changed dramatically," Funk said. "Unless an institution has a proactive agent to cajole and nurture (the candidates), they won't commit."

Keeping candidates' names secret will help universities get more sitting presidents to apply, Funk said.

But Funk said he doesn't think search firms promote secrecy so they can trot the same group of candidates from one search to another.

"If there are people who are doing it for that reason, they should be driven from the profession," he said.

Iowans sitting on the sidelines watching the presidential search are baffled by the cost and the lack of results.

"I guess I'm disappointed in the lack of progress, given the amount of money that has been spent," said state Sen. Paul McKinley, a Chariton Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

State Sen. Michael Connolly, a Dubuque Democrat and McKinley's co-chairman, agreed.

"The failures in the process this time are all coming to light," he said. "That said, we have the best Board of Regents we've ever had. We need to put all of this in the past.

"Let's get this job done."

Consultant cost: $195,227

Below is a list of University of Iowa payments to Heidrick & Struggles, a search firm, as of Nov. 20. Faculty members say the firm turned up one of the top seven presidential candidates.

Professional service fee $110,000
Indirect expenses $13,200
Consultant travel $16,916
Advertising $54,623
Office expense $488
Total $195,227

Source: University of Iowa