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Top choice to be U of I president withdraws

Search now more difficult, say regent critics

Erin Jordan

Des Moines Register

December 8, 2006

Searching for new U of I president: A Timeline

[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 University of Iowa's search for a new president hit another embarrassing roadblock this week, officials announced Thursday, and the swirling controversy that has gained national attention will make it harder for the school to recruit a top-notch president, faculty and staff predicted afterward.

In a statement released Thursday, the Iowa Board of Regents said a new search will be started after the regents' top choice for the job among the four finalists chosen by a search committee withdrew his name from consideration. The top candidate dropped out, despite personal lobbying from Gov. Tom Vilsack, after the regents' executive director invited him to Iowa City to meet the public.

"This is not an unexpected result," said Sheldon Kurtz, chairman of the U of I Faculty Senate. "I would be surprised that any individual would want to be president of this university, given the board leadership."

Faculty, staff and students at the University of Iowa have heaped criticism on the regents since the board voted 6-2 on Nov. 17 to reject four finalists.

The campus groups plan to vote in coming weeks on resolutions of no-confidence in the regents' leadership, representatives of the groups said Thursday. The rancor over the on-again, off-again search process will make it difficult for the U of I's next leader, said Katherine Tachau, a U of I history professor and co-chairwoman of the presidential search committee the regents selected.

"Candidates will be worried about committing career suicide by coming into an unsettled situation," she said.

Other universities nationwide have found leaders after failed presidential searches. But it takes time - the U of I's recent search lasted 10 months - and it often takes more money.

"A number of candidates are interested in money, let me tell you," said Allen Koenig, senior consultant with R.H. Perry & Associates, an executive recruitment firm. "If Iowa revisits that subject, you could have a very nice presidential search."

The University of Iowa ranked last in presidential compensation among public universities in the Big Ten, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education's latest salary survey. The article also pointed out that Iowa's three state universities have lost eight presidents in the past 19 years to jobs that paid significantly more.

Former U of I President David Skorton left last summer after three years to become president of Cornell University. Skorton's 2004-05 salary in Iowa City was $302,050. By contrast, the Chronicle's survey shows that former Cornell President Jeffrey Lehman, who resigned in June 2005, was paid about $1 million in salary and benefits in 2004-05.

The U of I has already paid nearly $200,000 for the presidential search, and many November bills have yet to come in.

The controversy surrounding the U of I search will not necessarily deter qualified candidates, said Koenig, the recruitment firm executive.

"A good president coming in could do a turnaround situation that would impress people all over the country," he said.

The regents have not set a timeline for starting a new search. Executive Director Gary Steinke said it would not happen until there were meetings with faculty, staff, students and other U of I groups.

"The goal is, was and always will be getting the best president for the University of Iowa," Steinke said.

Regents and faculty and staff members at the university were optimistic earlier this week that the stalled presidential search could be jump-started.

The regents met Monday in a 90-minute private conference call to re-evaluate the four finalists, who included U of I Provost Michael Hogan, two provosts from other large universities and a president of a midsized college.

In a statement made public Thursday, Michael Gartner, regents president, said, "After a thorough discussion of the candidates' qualifications and strengths, the regents agreed to re-contact one of the candidates from the four finalists."

Steinke visited the top finalist on Tuesday to talk about the U of I job. The candidate called the regents' office Wednesday to withdraw from further consideration.

"I got an indication he is involved and is a finalist in two other searches," Steinke said.

Vilsack spent 15 to 20 minutes on the phone with the finalist Wednesday outlining the search process and the role the U of I plays in the state, Vilsack spokesman Matt Paul said. The finalist's concerns about the job did not seem to relate to the search itself, Paul said.

No other finalists were pursued because they did not have the support of a majority of the regents' nine members, said Regent Robert Downer.

Hogan, who was also a finalist for the University of Delaware presidency, said last week that he was still interested in the U of I's top job. He did not return a phone call Thursday.

It is reasonable to assume Hogan was not the regents' pick, said Kurtz, the Faculty Senate chairman. "That would be a fair assessment," he said.

Kurtz, Tachau and Downer said they hoped Hogan would not leave the U of I, which could weaken the university's upper-level leadership. Hogan enjoyed support of students who launched a group on called "Hogan's Heroes" to lobby the regents to choose him as president.

Interim U of I President Gary Fethke has agreed to serve until a new president is hired.

Peter McElligott, president of the U of I Student Government, said Thursday's announcement was a letdown.

"It's disappointing the candidate they selected said no, and it's disappointing they only chose one candidate," he said. "It's going to be a long road to recovery."

Searching for new U of I president: A Timeline
JAN. 21, 2006: University of Iowa President David Skorton named to lead Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

MARCH 20: Regents unanimously select Teresa Wahlert, a regent from West Des Moines, to lead the presidential search and screening committee. She is the first regent to sit on a U of I search committee.

APRIL 3: Regents name Gary Fethke, retiring dean of the U of I College of Business, as interim president. Fethke is chosen on a 5-4 vote over former U of I President Willard Boyd.

MAY 3: Regents create 18-member search committee that includes four regents, as well as faculty, staff, students and others.

NOV. 9: Regents decline to say whether presidential candidates will do public, on-campus interviews. The board holds an executive session, but does not adjourn - so it can meet in coming days without telling the public.

NOV. 10-11: Search committee and regents interview seven candidates in Des Moines. Afterward, the committee forwards the names of four finalists to the regents.

NOV. 12-15: Regents meet at least twice in private conference calls to discuss the candidates.

NOV. 17: Regents vote 6-2 to reject the names of four finalists. Regents President Michael Gartner says the finalists did not have enough health science experience.

NOV. 27: Gov. Tom Vilsack meets for nearly three hours with regents, faculty, staff, students, legislators and alumni about the presidential search. Participants do not say what was discussed.

DEC. 1: Several regents meet with Fethke and about 15 U of I deans and vice presidents about the presidential search.

DEC. 4: Regents hold private, 90-minute conference call to reconsider the four finalists. The group selects one to pursue.

DEC. 5: Regents Executive Director Gary Steinke travels to visit the top candidate. Steinke says the candidate would need to participate in public interviews in Iowa City.

DEC. 6: The candidate calls Steinke to withdraw from the search, despite encouragement in a telephone call from Governor Vilsack.

DEC. 7: Regents announce they were unsuccessful in hiring a new president and will relaunch the search.