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UI's search firm found only 1 finalist

Kurt Hiatt

The Daily Iowan

November 30, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Daily Iowan, 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 Daily Iowan.]

Despite spending nearly $200,000 on a search firm to find the next UI president, only one of the seven finalists was a result of the company's effort - and that candidate was not part of the final four.

"I think [search firms] are generally not particularly helpful to a search," said UI Professor Katherine Tachau, who served as vice chairwoman of the dissolved search committee. "I did not find [the search firm] helpful."

Almost 75 percent of 169 nominations submitted to the UI presidential-search committee were from UI-connected people, Tachau said. She wasn't sure what methods the firm used to find prospective replacements for former UI President David Skorton, she said, noting that the committee told the firm where to advertise for candidates.

The UI spent $195,227 in consulting fees for the search firm Heidrick and Struggles for the aborted presidential search, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which cited documents from the state Board of Regents. The figure includes a base rate, travel fees, at roughly $17,000, and almost $55,000 in advertising costs.

Meanwhile, school and city officials say search firms have both advantages and drawbacks but aren't used very often during their respective staff searches.

In the Iowa City School District, said Superintendent Lane Plugge - who began his job in August 1999 - the last time district officials used a search firm was to hire him.

The Iowa City School District uses search firms almost only for hiring superintendents, he said.

"I don't know any school district that doesn't use a search firm for help," he said. "I think you almost need that assistance."

The main reason the School District would solicit help from a firm is to get a diverse pool of applicants for the job, he said.

Both Plugge and Dan Smith, the executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa, said another reason search firms are successful for school districts is that not many people can fulfill the specific obligations of the open position.

"The major advantage [of firms] is you can turn to someone who has done this many times," Smith said.

But search firms do not come without drawbacks. One disadvantage Plugge sees with search firms is their possible bias in selecting a candidate.

Smith agreed.

"Sometimes, there is a perception search firms have people they're aware of" for a job, he said.

Another perceived downfall of search firms is if the company ultimately can't find a qualified candidate for the job, community perceptions of the search firm and school board are weakened.

"I think there's always that concern," Smith said. "If a person doesn't work or there's difficulty finding someone, people will question why they couldn't have found someone."

The cost is also always a downfall, Plugge and Smith said.

Pete Wallace, a member of the Iowa City School Board when the district used a search firm to find Plugge, said search firms are necessary for some jobs.

"I think any fairly substantial position you're looking for, you really need to use a search firm," he said.

City Manager Steve Atkins said the last time the city used a search firm was to solicit candidates for his position roughly 20 years ago.

Since his hiring, he said, the use of search firms has "expanded exponentially." Money is not a big concern for Atkins, regarding the firms, because cost of a search firm is often similar to handling the hiring process internally, he said.

"Generally speaking, [firms] are very helpful to a legislative body," he said.

But he added that he hires many senior-level employees internally rather than using a firm because they are often the most qualified applicants. He also hires internally for fairness purposes, he said.

"Generally, I still think [search firms] can perform a worthwhile service," Atkins said.