The search for a new president of the University of Tennessee is making a mockery of the process of inclusiveness that it's supposed to exemplify. Instead of involving UT's faculty, deans and administrators as it purports to do, the process appears to exclude them from having a voice in the selection when finalists for the post are named, prospectively within the next few weeks.
The list of finalists is likely to be hand-picked by a Dallas-based consultant, Bill Funk of the executive search firm Korn/Ferry. Funk's list, derived from months of recruiting and screening on his part, will be submitted to a 10-person Search Committee that doesn't include a single representative of UT's Knoxville campus. The Search Committee, compromised of members of UT's politically appointed Board of Trustees, will then make its recommendation to the board.
A broadly representative, 21-member Advisory Council has been involved in the search process up to now—until the time has come to really pick a president, that is. The council's chair, Carolyn Hodges, who is head of the department of modern foreign languages and literature, is serving as an ex-officio, non-voting member of the Search Committee. Hodges says she will seek input from the other council members on the finalists once their names are divulged. Moreover, an internet cast of their interviews with the Search Committee is envisioned, which council members and anyone else who's interested can observe.
However, this observer status is a far cry from the intensive role that the Advisory Council has played in evaluating an initial pool of nearly 100 applicants for the position. At a meeting in December, the council selected four semi-finalists from this pool (a fifth, the former dean of UT's College of Business, Warren Neel, withdrew his name, invoking his commitment to his present post as the state's commissioner of finance). Then, on January 25, council members interviewed the four candidates and submitted their recommendations to Funk.
Unfortunately, though predictably, none of them rises to the stature of a serious contender for the UT presidency. All are provosts and/or vice presidents for academic affairs at lesser institutions. In the estimate of senior UT academic officials, none of them can hold a candle to UT's own highly regarded provost, Loren Crabtree.
While protocol may have made it obligatory to interview them, the process was virtually a charade if not an insult to all concerned. Certainly, it seems insulting to the Advisory Council to involve them in evaluating one set of candidates while excluding it from the evaluation of Funk's anticipated short list of recruits.
What's worse than all the insult is the injury that an exclusionary process can do to the person eventually selected and hence, to the institution. "I'm deeply concerned that we're setting up whoever is selected without even having met with key people on the campus. It's going to put that person at a tremendous disadvantage," asserts Anne Mayhew, vice provost and dean of the graduate school. Crabtree terms it "the most secrecy-shrouded process I've ever seen."
The case for secrecy starts with the premise that top candidates won't even agree to be considered unless they are assured of anonymity until virtually selected. Public disclosure that they are considering a new job, it's argued, will compromise their effectiveness in their present posts. Yet public meeting laws in Tennessee and most other states require that state universities conduct their searches in public, at least where meetings of official bodies are concerned. "That's why the private schools are getting all the top people," contends long-time UT trustee James Haslam II.
As a consultant, Funk can recruit candidates privately and also talk privately about them with members of the search committee, one-on-one. But pray tell how Funk can hold all of the other conversations needed to evaluate their qualifications without their identities becoming known just as assuredly as if they were interviewed by the Advisory Council. Moreover, it seems likely that fellow academics are in a position to get better reads on many of candidate attributes from colleagues at another institution (though not perhaps on their fund-raising, lobbying and public persona prowess).
The last time UT picked a president in 1999, the search committee brought three purported finalists to Knoxville for interviews, as well as an appearance at public forums. The feedback from the faculty was largely negative toward J. Wade Gilley, based mainly on reports from his Marshall University colleagues that Gilley had a heavy-handed management style and didn't pay attention to faculty concerns. These very traits, along with health problems and much-publicized indiscretions, contributed to Gilley's downfall two years ago.
In point of fact, Gilley had been privately selected by key members of the search committee of that time, before the public interviews and forums took place. In other words, the public process was a sham. Especially given the Gilley debacle, it would be tragic to confront the present Advisory Council and the rest of the academic community with another fait accompli.
Given UT's deplorable financial problems—to which no solution is in sight—it's going to be terribly difficult to attract a top-flight new leader to the university at this time. No one should begrudge the fact that it's taking Funk longer than expected to come up with any candidates; nor should anyone make light of the sensitivities involved in the handling of their names. However, it would be worse than leaving the position unfilled for a time to fill it with someone whose effectiveness is impaired due to a flawed selection process.
It's not too late to remedy the flaws by making the process truly inclusive, and any candidate worthy of the job should insist that this be done.