Peter Knuepfer | Immediate past president | University Faculty Senate
Leadership changes happen all the time in higher education, and with each change comes a chance to make a choice: Do we continue down the “because we’ve always done it this way” road, or do we embrace the moment and let the winds of change freshen things? Do we learn from successes and failures of others?
The imminent departure of Chancellor Kristina Johnson offers the State University of New York Board of Trustees a rare opportunity to engage us all. In a time of unprecedented emotional, physical and fiscal challenges facing higher education the board’s process for selecting Chancellor Johnson’s successor needs to be open and transparent. Such a process will not only let SUNY identify the best possible candidate(s), but also give the next chancellor a greater chance at success with a broad coalition of engaged partners. A search overseen by a large enough committee represents the interests and experiences of key constituencies within and outside SUNY.
Secrecy has increasingly become the modus operandi of search committees, particularly for senior leaders. I respect the need for protecting potential candidates because most have to be encouraged to apply (the reason we use search firms), and they do not want to risk their current position. So early stages of the search must be done in confidence.
On the other hand, when a final group of candidates has been identified by the search committee it is important that candidates be vetted beyond the search committee so a broader cross-section of parties can offer their own insights into the finalists. More eyes may see something about candidates that may not have been clear to the search committee.
Two examples make my point:
First, I was president of UFS when Dr. Johnson was selected to be the 13th chancellor, and I served on the search committee that was established to recommend candidates to the Board of Trustees. (The other faculty member on the committee was the president of the Faculty Council of Community Colleges.) The committee had 22 members, of which eight were members of the board (including the two faculty trustees and the student trustee), five were presidents of SUNY institutions (representing the full range of types of campuses in the system), and the other nine were from the general public and included some prominent alumni, academic, business, and political leaders (though no elected officials).
While this was certainly a broadly based group, it was also large enough that a single voice sometimes could be lost. SUNY board and search committee Chair H. Carl McCall, however, ensured that all members could participate at whatever level their schedules and commitments allowed.
The committee reached strong consensus on final candidates, independent of any significant external influence, though cognizant of the political realities in a state like New York. Ultimately a single candidate emerged as other finalists withdrew from consideration, as is often the case.
The principal criticism I have of the process was that, in the final analysis, there was little opportunity for voices outside the committee to be heard as finalists were being considered. I assert that it can be feasible to involve more people in evaluation of candidates and still retain confidentiality (assuming, of course, that those who meet with finalists adhere to confidentiality agreements).
Second, Contrast that experience with what occurred in the presidential search at the University of Wisconsin system in 2019-20. There, the search committee was small, consisting only of members of the UW regents (their board of trustees), including the student regent, and campus chancellors (i.e., presidents). Faculty and outside voices were absent, despite urging from the governor and other sources that the committee be more representative. Following a national search, Jim Johnsen, then president of the University of Alaska system, was announced as sole finalist. The statement from the Board of Regents indicated that other finalists had withdrawn from consideration, again as is commonly done when it is clear which candidate has the board’s backing. However, in this case the choice of the search committee and Board of Regents was an academic with a very checkered history in Alaska. Faculty voted no confidence in his leadership in 2017, and both faculty and students voted no confidence in his leadership in 2019. I can only surmise that the lack of additional voices at the table led to the choice of a candidate who would be unlikely to meet with broad approval from faculty. Indeed, Dr. Johnsen’s candidacy lasted only a few days after he was announced as sole finalist, as he withdrew subsequent to outcry from faculty.
The important lesson here, I believe, is that for a system leader to enter with broad backing and the highest likelihood of success, the search process must be as broadly based as possible. That means a broad committee, yes, but also a mechanism at the finalist stage to provide sufficient review by key constituencies before the SUNY Board of Trustees makes its final decision. This needs to be done in a way that protects the confidentiality of candidates, so access beyond the search committee and the board does need to be limited. And, because we are a state system, the next chancellor needs to be acceptable within the seats of political power.
Write for the University Faculty Senate!!