TOM HARTON Commentary: Recipe for a great university president

November 6, 2006

And in the almost 20 years since John Ryan? None of the three presidents hired by IU's trustees have had any apparent connection to IU or the state. The IU marketing machine will churn out plenty of evidence, most of it legitimate, that those three-Thomas Ehrlich, Myles Brand and Adam Herbert-enjoyed successful tenures, but public perception says otherwise.

IU isn't alone in turning its back on internal candidates.

R. William Funk, one of the foremost university president headhunters, said only 10 percent to 20 percent of his searches result in the hiring of an internal candidate.

"There was a time when universities-seven or eight times out of 10-picked a beloved longtime dean," says Funk, a Dallas-based consultant. Now, he says, there's almost a stigma attached to hiring from within.

So why have America's great universities turned away from hiring the likes of Herman B Wells, the Hoosier and IU alum generally credited with leading the school to prominence in academic circles, or the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the University of Notre Dame grad and revered administrator who presided in South Bend for 35 years?

The reasons are numerous, says Funk, who helped IU hire Myles Brand from the University of Oregon in 1994.

The overarching reason is that the job of a university president is more complex than it once was. Fund-raising and political skills have become almost as important as academic background and commitment to faculty and students. As a result, salaries are skyrocketing and length of tenure is falling. The average length of stay for a public university president is now four to six years, Funk says.

Why don't they stay longer? They spend all their political capital in the first few years, or the board that hired them changes and they lose support, Funk says. They also leave if a better offer comes along.

So if rapid turnover is a problem, isn't it wise to hire someone who bleeds the school colors-someone who knows the culture of the school and cares passionately about it?

Maybe so. In spite of today's tendency to hire from outside the flock, five of the 11 schools in the Big Ten are led by someone who already had a history with the school.

Four others are in search mode. Purdue, of course, is trying to find a successor to Martin Jischke, who is retiring at the end of this academic year following what most people agree was a very successful seven-year presidency.

Was Jischke a Purdue guy? No, but he came from Iowa State University, which, like Purdue, is a land-grant college. Almost all land-grant schools focus on agriculture and technology, and they often hire from within their ranks, says Funk, who helped hire Jischke.

Funk knows a thing or two about Purdue. He got a master's degree there in 1974 and is conducting its search again. Purdue might well end up with another president with no Purdue connections, but its search is in loyal Purdue hands.

IU's search might have ended up in the same hands. Funk says he was approached by IU to look for Herbert's successor, but had to decline. Conducting simultaneous searches for schools in the Big Ten would be a conflict of interest.

So IU turned to Edward W. Kelley & Partners, another respected search firm. As part of the process, the IU search committee and its hired gun are collecting input from all interested parties-students, alums, etc.

Here's this alum's 2 cents: Hire the best person for the job, but don't discount the value of someone who already knows his or her way around the block in Bloomington. The next IU president's passion for the university has to extend beyond his or her paycheck.

Jim Morris, with an IU degree and a long list of accomplishments-including past president of the IU board of trustees and head of the United Nations' World Food Program-is said to be a candidate. Maybe there are other Hoosiers with the right credentials.

Will IU's trustees give a home-grown candidate a shot this time? Time will tell, but recent history suggests it might be time for some home cookin' in Bloomington.

Harton is editor of IBJ. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tharton@ibj.com.
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