Either out of tremendous self-confidence or respect for a valuable University of Michigan tradition, the University has long given deference to internal candidates for top administrative posts.
Allegiance to that custom, which for a number of possible reasons University President Mary Sue Coleman, a relative newcomer to the institution, did not follow when selecting a new provost, has caused concern in University circles over the recent search process leading to the selection of Coleman’s right-hand officer.
In January, the University announced the selection of the well-regarded University of Texas administrator Teresa Sullivan to be the next provost and vice president for academic affairs.
For the first time in University history, neither the president nor the provost will be long-time Wolverines. Sullivan will also be the first external candidate chosen to be provost since James P. Adams in 1948, when the position entailed less authority.
To some observers, this turn of events may merely be a coincidence. But to others it marks a departure from University tradition and an acceptance of a troubling national trend turning the field of university administration into its own profession, separate from the faculty.
According to a number of individuals familiar with the search process, no internal candidates made it onto the list of finalists given to Coleman by the head of the provost search advisory committee, James Jackson, even though the larger list of finalists the committee members developed included internal candidates.
In addition, individuals who spoke with The Michigan Daily on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding the search said some of the strongest internal candidates withdrew from the process because they felt they would not be selected.
This has led to intense speculation that Coleman influenced the search process out of a desire to select an external candidate.
Coleman told the Daily that it is “absolutely not true” that she told Jackson she expected the search process to culminate in the selection of an external candidate.
But presumably Coleman is too adept at University politics to be so blunt. The steering was much subtler than that, one person close to the search told the Daily.
That Coleman wanted an external candidate and got one is the prevailing attitude among some knowledgeable people on campus.
In an e-mail interview, Coleman said she did not ask Jackson to encourage internal candidates to withdraw from the process, nor did she take any other actions to influence the search in a way that would have discriminated against the internal candidates.
“That would have been unfair to the candidates, the integrity of the search process, and to the search committee itself,” she wrote.
In his forthcoming book examining presidential leadership, former University President James Duderstadt chimes in on a national debate that puts the local one into context.
He writes about the increasing professional character of university administrators, which he says leads to “institution hopping” and large compensation packages that can detach the president from the rest of the faculty.
He also writes that this trend can prevent university presidents from understanding “the distinctive institutional saga of their university.” He goes on to say that there is evidence “to suggest that leaders without the experience or appreciation for ‘the business’ of an organization can get their organization into real trouble, threatening its very survival.”
On the other hand, individuals may also gain valuable administrative experience and insight at other institutions, which they can bring to their new posts.
At a meeting of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs earlier this month, Sullivan said having an external provost is not the typical practice for research universities or for the University: “Having an outside provost is not such a usual thing,” she said. “It’s a high-risk operation for you and for me.”
In December, when discussing her transition from a professor to an administrator, Coleman told the Daily that she views her time as an administrator like a second career.
And both Andrea Fischer Newman, the chair of the University Board of Regents, and Jackson told the Daily that it is more important to find the best candidate in the nation than to choose an internal candidate with more knowledge of the University.
Jackson also cited Sullivan’s “extensive administrative experience” when explaining why she was chosen.
Coleman most likely did not rule out an inside candidate from the outset, but she also made it clear that she did not place any preference on an internal candidate. While previous provost searches were national searches, they always ended with the selection of an internal candidate, even when the president was groomed at the University. Because the provost runs the University on a day-to-day basis, making important budgetary and academic decisions, there was an understanding on campus that a person who knew the institution intimately – like a professor or lower-level administrator – would be a better fit for the job.
Before Chuck Vest became provost, he’d spent more than 25 years at the University.
The lack of preference for an internal candidate this time around could be a result of Coleman’s view of the professional nature of university administrations. She, after all, has worked at five institutions during her career as an administrator.
There is also speculation that the regents influenced her to strongly consider external candidates, but trying to predict what goes on inside regents’ heads is like trying to predict what the stock market will do 10 years from now.
In the e-mail, Coleman said the regents did not influence her decision to pick Sullivan: “Professor Jackson led a rigorous and excellent search, and the selection decision was mine and mine alone.”
Regent Olivia Maynard said that if discussions took place among the regents to influence the appointment she was not privy to them. She also said she does not believe that Coleman influenced the search process. She added that the choice of an external candidate does not mark a turning point for the University; if the best candidate had come from inside, she said, that candidate would have been chosen.
Many observers of University history are surprised that an external president would break a long-standing tradition and choose an external provost. They point out that local knowledge is important and that historically, the University’s system of grooming candidates has been successful.
Many University provosts have gone on to become presidents, including Duderstadt; former MIT President Chuck Vest; William Frye, who became president of Emory University; and Nancy Cantor, president and chancellor of Syracuse University.
At a number of other prestigious universities, including MIT and the University of California at Berkeley, with external presidents, the president has chosen an internal provost.
There are indeed benefits of a thorough national search. Sullivan, for example, has been praised even by many of those strongest adherents to the University’s tradition. She is credited with being a good ambassador to the public and the state Legislature in Texas. She has also turned down offers at numerous other universities for years because of her commitment to stay in Austin to see her son through the treatment of a serious medical condition. Now that he is healthy and away at school, Sullivan is finally able to accept a position.
“Outstanding provosts can come from both inside or outside the home institution – in this search, we wound up with the very best person for the job,” Coleman said.