Purdue keeps search for next president secret

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It has been seven months since a committee tasked with finding the next Purdue University president began its hunt.

What is known about the search?

Not too much.

The 14-member committee has likely interviewed at least a few potential candidates at a ritzy Indianapolis restaurant and hotel. This past week two candidates traveled to the city for back-to-back interviews within 24 hours.

But who those candidates are–maybe an East Coast higher education star or Midwest businessman–remains a game of speculation.

Trustee Mike Berghoff, the committee chairman, declined to discuss details of the search last week. Other members of the committee are keeping tight lips, too.

An update issued Friday by Purdue offered little new information. The committee will narrow the field to two to four candidates for consideration by the full board of trustees. A candidate is expected to be selected and in place when President France Cordova steps down July 15 after five years.

The search, Berghoff said, remains on track.

Yet some at Purdue, such as professor Joe Camp, would like to know who those final candidates are. Indiana does not have laws that require finalists for public jobs to be made public.

"My preference would be to publicly announce the finalists and bring those individuals to campus so that all interested parties could hear from and learn more about the finalists," said the comparative pathobiology professor.

"However, I realize that many top candidates would refuse to be considered if their names were announced prior to being chosen as the next university president because of the awkwardness that might arise with their current positions.

"Given that reality, I do not envision the search committee changing the current, secret process."

The confidentiality is paramount, trustees have said, for the reasons Camp mentioned.

It's expected the committee will introduce only one candidate this spring–their chosen successor to Cordova.

But a closed process, one that blocks the finalists' identity from faculty, administrators and students, could create problems, say higher education experts.

Rita Bornstein, president emerita at Rollins College and author, said airing of names could weed out candidates with the wrong personality or other hidden problems.

"This is the kind of thing you are buying into when you don't check references and if there are issues of leadership, behavior, alcoholism, how they act in a crisis situation," she said. "If faculty know who finalists are, they can reach out to colleagues and find out if this person is the right pick.

"At some point, you can protect people in the process but when you get to the last two or three, you should get their permission and do reference checking."

Berghoff said even within a closed search, the committee is able to check references on all candidates and conduct background checks–but only with candidate approval.

If the circumstances allow, members of the committee and board prefer to have the finalist meet with an appropriate group of Purdue constituents," he said. "That meeting benefits the group and the finalist."

Last week Berghoff chose to hold closed-door meetings in Indianapolis with two candidates despite breaking an Indiana law that requires 48 hours of public notice when public bodies meet. Instead only seven hours notice was given before the committee, which includes four Purdue Board of Trustees members, meet at St. Elmo Steak House Monday night. Tuesday an interview was held at the Conrad Hotel.

The Indiana public access counselor said Purdue did not give proper notice of the meetings.

Charles Ross, comparative literature program director, said he understands the value of confidentiality and the frustrations that can cause for some.

"But we know who's on the search committee and who's on the board of trustees, and anyone with anything to offer can presumably contact one of these people," he said. "There's a professional search firm involved that knows the protocols for this sort of thing. The time to cheer or boo isn't quite here yet."

At the University of Indianapolis there is no veil around its search.

Earlier this month four finalists were named to succeed President Beverley Pitts, who plans to retire this summer. One finalists has since withdrawn. Remaining candidates will travel to campus and meet with students, staff and faculty for a round of interviews.

Deborah Daniels, University of Indianapolis trustee and search committee chairwoman, declined to discuss why the university chose to make finalists public.

"All searches are different," she said.

Searches are not easy, explained Ted Marchese, a consultant of counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based AGB Search, and they don't make everyone happy.

In the past 10 years, high level academic searches have faced growing challenges. Finalists worry how to sell their home, if they can find a job for a dual-career spouse and, if they have school-age children, how they will handle a move.

While many provosts have transitioned into president, about half don't want the job, either, Marchese said.

"Today, the presidency is more of an external job than in the past," Marchese said. "They are expected to work with legislators and donors and the board of trustees. They need to relate to the faculty. The president can be away from campus dealing with external parties a great deal of time."

But a sitting president who has made considerable contributions to an institution or possibly completed a capital campaign, may see a new challenge.

"If they still got gas in the tank and are full of vim and vigor to run, they may want to put a capstone on the career," he said.

Another key, Bornstein said, is leading with a sense of shared governance, that gives faculty members a sense of decision making. She also believes trustees should encourage succession planning on campus. But that is not happening often.

"We are always looking for the savior outside," she said.

Marchese and Bornstein agree: Most schools want the same type of president–one who appeals to everyone and can raise lots and lots of money.

"It is the proverbial 'find me someone who can walk on water,'" Bornstein said.


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