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Go back to the future in U of I presidential search

Jonathan Carlson

Des Moines Register

November 27, 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.]

Let’s take the advice of Gov. Tom Vilsack and Board of Regents President Michael Gartner. Let’s step back and calmly consider what happened with the search for a new president for the University of Iowa.

It is common ground that the goal of the search was to find the best possible person to lead the university. It is also common ground that the search failed to achieve that goal. There must have been a reason.

It is possible that the best person was not among the applicants for the job. If so, the fault rests squarely on the shoulders of the regents. It was the job of the search firm, hired by the regents, to develop the pool of candidates. It was the job of the committee chair, regent Teresa Wahlert, to recognize whether the search firm had done its job adequately. If the candidate pool was lacking, Wahlert’s duty was to work with the committee and the search firm to generate and implement ideas for enhancing the pool.

It’s also possible that the best candidate applied for the job, but the search committee failed to select that person as one of the finalists. If so, then the search committee’s process for evaluating and selecting the candidates was flawed.

In a well-run search, committee members spend most of their time scrutinizing candidate credentials, sharing their views of candidate strengths and weaknesses and discussing their disagreements about the relative merits of the top candidates. The goal is to have the most thorough and thoughtful candidate evaluation possible. When committee members share their ideas freely and frequently, candidate strengths become evident, weaknesses are revealed and the very best candidates invariably rise to the top.

News reports suggest that the search committee process did not permit a frank, open and thorough sharing of opinions about the qualifications of the candidates. We are told that committee members were not allowed to see one another’s evaluations of the candidates. And the meeting when the regents rejected the list of four finalists was laughably short for the difficult and important job the committee had before it.

Gartner’s public comment that “I believe the four regents on the committee urged that six names be sent” to the Board of Regents suggests that he did not actually know what his fellow regents thought about the final list that was generated. (He was one of the four regents on the search committee.) If so, then the committee discussion was stunningly inadequate. Committee members have told the press that virtually every step of the search was dictated by the tag team of Wahlert and Gartner, frequently without discussion or vote.

A final possible reason for the failure of the search is that the best possible person for the job was among the finalists, but the regents failed to choose that person.

How do we move forward from here?

For more than 25 years, Iowa’s Board of Regents has selected state university presidents through a process that has been extraordinarily successful at identifying top administrative talent. Three of the past four U of I presidents have gone on to lead Ivy League institutions — America’s best universities. The fourth is now the president of the best public university east of the Rocky Mountains. That record of success is unmatched by any university governing board in the country.

The current board made an arrogant and ill-advised decision to create a process of its own.

If everyone (including the regents) looks at the situation calmly, it ought to be clear that it is time to abandon the failed processes that this board has created and return to the successful search procedures used in the past. Then, perhaps, we really will find the best possible person to lead the University of Iowa.
JONATHAN C. CARLSON of Iowa City is a professor at the University of Iowa and was chairman of the search committee that led to selection of former President David Skorton. This essay presents his personal views.