To a significant degree, the excellence of Kansas University’s next chancellor will be determined in the next few days, or next few weeks at the most.
It will be determined by the manner in which the Kansas Board of Regents decides to fill this vacancy.
Basically, it will be determined by the excellence, experience and knowledge of those selected to serve on the so-called “search committee,” along with their sense of urgency in fulfilling their mission as soon as possible.
Will the search committee be composed of the usual politically correct cross-section of members: “X” number of faculty members, “X” number of students, “X” number of alumni and perhaps a couple of lawmakers and regents, none of whom really have any idea how to best locate, recruit and hire an individual to run a top-flight university?
And what kind of timetable will the regents or those on the search committee set for themselves to come up with the names of candidates for the chancellorship? The usual practice seems to be to string the search process out far too long, counting on an interim chancellor to step into the breach and keep the school running. This is the wrong approach.
There is no reason the new chancellor cannot be selected and ready to move into the chancellor’s Strong Hall office shortly after Hemenway retires to write his book on intercollegiate athletics.
For example, the search for a new president of West Virginia University started this past October with a Dec. 1 deadline for submitting names for consideration. Those on the search committee, and West Virginia University officials, said they intended to have a new president selected by April. It now appears, however, the selection will be made prior to that date.
Former KU Chancellor Gene Budig chairs the West Virginia effort. He has the good fortune of a superior committee with three members of this group — Peter Magrath, Charles Vest and himself — having a total of 62 years of leading the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and state universities in Missouri, Minnesota, West Virginia and Kansas.
These men know what to look for and they have tremendous connections with educators and senior business and research leaders throughout the country.
The three former college/university leaders have been actively recruiting promising individuals to seek the West Virginia job. They are not waiting for individuals unhappy with their present positions to answer an ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education. This writer has been told they have put together a great list of candidates.
Although a professional search company has been retained, the West Virginia committee is not merely sitting around waiting for the search firm to provide names for review. Search committee members are actively seeking specific individuals and asking them to consider being a candidate, telling them why it would be an excellent position for them.
It is critical that the Kansas regents appoint a strong, knowledgeable search committee with a chairman who will devote a tremendous amount of his or her time to leading the recruitment exercise.
The recruiters should be targeting individuals who are looked upon as key members of their respective universities, companies or research institutes, people whom these entities want to hold on to and not lose to another school.
If a university, its alumni and friends think it is important to go all-out to recruit a person who can throw or catch a football or someone who can dribble and dunk a basketball, doesn’t it stand to reason similar efforts should be made to recruit a chancellor? After all, what’s the primary mission of a university? Think of the money spent by the KU athletics department in recruiting football and basketball players. Only a tiny fraction of this amount is likely to be spent on finding and landing a true “four-” or “five-star” chancellor candidate, using the parlance applied to the very top high school athletes.
Spouses of these candidates also need to be vetted just as thoroughly as the candidates. The spouse of a college chancellor is an integral part of a successful team. He or she is in the public spotlight and can play a major role in the success of the chancellor and, in many cases, represents the school.
What kind of chancellor does KU want? One who is primarily interested in fielding championship athletic teams? One who is known for his or her academic excellence? A great scholar? A person known for being able to raise money? Someone highly respected in the national academic fraternity? One with a great personality? Or someone who is known as a thorough but able administrator who gets maximum effort out of his or her associates?
Jim Moeser, the retiring president of the University of North Carolina and a former dean of the KU School of Fine Arts, told this writer he makes it clear to members of all search committees at his university that they are recruiters, not merely screeners of applications.
That’s what KU must have, but the key to a successful search is the composition of the search committee and the selection of a committed, dynamic chairman with national contacts in higher education.
What are the very top candidates looking for in a college chancellorship or presidency? Some considerations:
l If it is a state-aided institution, the economic condition of the state in which the school is located is extremely important. Does the state have a stable economic future?
l What is the record of state legislators in fiscally supporting higher education?
l Salary levels are not that important unless the financial package is hopelessly under the current scale paid at top state-aided universities.
l Most top candidates look for a school that is sufficiently large with an excellent academic reputation. At the same time, they are looking for a school that is not so big or so good that changes can’t be made to make it an even finer institution. The really good candidates have enough confidence in themselves and in their abilities that they can come to a university and make a big difference, make it into a better school.
KU is 143 years old and has had 16 chancellors. There are not many opportunities to hire a chancellor, so every effort should be made to review, investigate and assess every facet of individuals being considered for this position.
Hopefully, the Board of Regents will move quickly to select and appoint search committee members and not allow KU officials to merely put together a collection of nice people to forward to the Regents for this terribly important position. The state and the university deserve something better than the normal cookie-cutter selection committee.
The selection process should not be turned into a town hall affair with the winning candidate being based on who is the most popular and acceptable to a cross-section of students and faculty. This is not a popularity contest or an exercise to display political correctness. Go for the best!
The search process should be put on the fast track schedule and should not be launched with the idea a stand-in will be needed to fill the void after Hemenway departs. Search committee members should have the goal of a new chancellor being named and ready to start the job by July 2009.
It should be a national search with no specific limitations imposed on the effort. Every effort should be made to keep the process from being politicized.
KU deserves and needs the best to head the university in these times of challenge, but great opportunity.