The University Board of Regents will attempt to tread a fine line as it seeks a replacement for departing University President Lee Bollinger: keep candidates out of the public spotlight as long as possible while complying with state guidelines.
Columbia University”s status as a private institution allowed it to keep its presidential search confidential, but public institutions in the state of Michigan have had to make their searches accessible to the public in the recent past. Some say this condition marginalized the search process and compromised the position of the University”s Board of Regents in the last two presidential searches.
But a 1999 Michigan Supreme Court ruling and subsequent amendments to the Open Meetings Act have changed the picture, and the search for the University”s 13th president will not have to be conducted publicly until the regents are close to making the final selection.
“It essentially allows university presidential searches to be private,” said Sen. John Schwarz (R-Battle Creek).
The degree to which it will be open is yet to be determined.
“That”s for the regents to decide,” said Phil Power, who was on the Board of Regents during the last presidential search. “It should make it a lot easier for them to get the job done.”
Regent S. Martin Taylor (D-Grosse Pointe Farms) said the eight-member board has not reached a decision on how the search will be conducted.
“We will certainly consult with attorneys and structure a process that is consistent with the law,” Taylor said.
The regents have not yet selected an interim president and have made no decision regarding when an interim president might take over the presidency from Bollinger. Ideally, Taylor said, the interim president and Bollinger would come to a mutually agreeable date, with the regents playing a mediating role.
“Our first look will be clearly within the University community because certainly one of your desired characteristics of an interim is that they could walk into the office and take off running,” Taylor said. The University”s top academic tiers deans and executive officers are already acquainted with the University”s affairs and could fill the position.
Bollinger, who was selected last week as Columbia”s next president, will take over for retiring chief executive George Rupp on July 1.
Former Regent Deane Baker of Ann Arbor would not speculate on how the current board may choose to structure the new search process.
“The process varies with the times,” Baker said. “I know that the search process will be markedly different from the last time.”
The last presidential search differed from previous searches because the University was under court order to make the process more accessible to the public.
Lawsuits by The Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press and The Ann Arbor News” parent company Booth Newspapers challenged the legality of the mostly confidential 1988 presidential search, and the University was ordered to conduct a more public search.
Consequently, in 1996 the regents were forbidden to speak to each other confidentially about the search process. They could not speak confidentially with individual candidates, and they could not make individual background checks on candidates.
“We were therefore forced to rely on the recommendation of the Presidential Advisory Committee,” Power said. “Fortunately, their recommendation of Lee Bollinger was one that the board was pleased to accept.”
Power said he and other regents felt the court injunction seriously impeded their ability to determine the best president for the University. Power said the ordeal was one of “bad process, good result.”
“There is no doubt whatsoever that the way in which the Michigan Open Meetings Act was applied to the University of Michigan had a chilling effect on the willingness of able University leaders to allow their names to go forward as candidates,” Power said.
By the time the search committee had narrowed its pool of candidates to the final four, Power said, “no sitting presidents zero, none had allowed their names to go through.”
Following the selection of Bollinger, Power spoke to the president of one prestigious institution who said he would have loved to be considered for the presidency but that the open nature of the process mandated by the court”s decision dissuaded him.
Power said there are a variety of reasons why candidates may not want their names to be made public. “If they”re sitting as presidents and they”re not selected, it”s embarrassing,” he said. In addition, if they are unsuccessful in seeking a position at a different institution their respective communities may regard them as “short-timers or malcontents.”
Dawn Phillips Hertz, general counsel for the Michigan Press Association, questioned the validity of that claim. She said communities value their administrators, as evidenced by the regents” attempt to offer Bollinger a more lucrative compensation package if he stayed at Michigan.
Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith (D-Salem Twp.) contends open searches do not compromise the quality of the candidate pool. “We got Lee Bollinger and he”s so good that he”s been in demand by the top two Ivy League schools in the country, so the process works,” said Smith, whose constituency includes the University. “It is not an unhealthy process.”
But Sen. Schwarz, a University alum, said he disagrees. “I believe that the number and quality of candidates who are willing to go through a private search are considerably higher and the quality is considerably better,” he said.
“They put their careers at considerable risk” by going through a public search, Schwarz said.
Closed searches do have their downsides, Power admitted.
“There is a risk in that because I think that at the end of the day a board needs to be sure that the candidates are acceptable to a university,” Power said.
Power said he feels the ideal solution lies in the gray area between completely open or closed searches. He said searches should be private until the pool is slimmed to the final few candidates, at which point the list should be made public and the candidates should visit campus and become acquainted with the institution.
Phillips Hertz said it is possible for anyone familiar with the search process to guess who the candidates for a position are likely to be. “To say that this is top secret information is malarkey,” she said.
An essentially closed search does not mean input from the community will be turned away, said Baker, the former regent. “There are literally dozens of interest groups on campus that have legitimate interest in the process,” he said. “What presidential searches have always done is include people from those various constituencies.”