Was UT's Presidential Search Process Too Transparent?

UT has a new president, but the quest for a perfect presidential search goes on

When Joe DiPietro was named president of the University of Tennessee last Friday, it marked more than just the selection of the fourth UT executive in 10 years (or sixth, if you count the interim terms of Eli Fly and Jan Simek). It also signaled the end of a presidential search process that was touted on the front end as the university's most transparent ever. And even before it was over, the search was already being second-guessed.

It's not that anyone has anything bad to say about DiPietro, at least not yet. He is an apparently popular chancellor of UT's Institute of Agriculture, and his selection by a narrow vote over a West Virginia education official suggested a preference for a known quantity. The three previous men to hold the post—Wade Gilley, John Shumaker, and John Petersen—all came from outside the UT system, and all resigned amid controversies of one kind or another.

But the openness of the search, intended partly to head off a repeat of those past embarrassments, had other consequences as well. Jim Murphy, vice chair of the university's Board of Trustees, wrote a column in the Tennessean last week lamenting that the level of exposure required by the search process limited the pool of applicants. All 71 names of those who applied for the position by the Oct. 6 deadline were made public.

In a phone interview on Monday, Murphy praised the selection of DiPietro but said there was a reason there were few people with experience running a large university among the candidates. "Someone who is a president, who's been the executive decision-maker at a campus, those people we don't see very much," he says. Of the 15 applicants who made the first cut for the job, only two had that distinction on their vitas: Randy Dunn, president of Murray State University in Kentucky, and Jay Noren, former president of Wayne State University in Detroit. Neither made the final round of five interviewees. (Murray State has only about 10,000 students; UT has about 45,000 statewide. Wayne State has about 32,000, but Noren had served as president just two years before resigning this past July after his wife was diagnosed with cancer.)

Murphy says the revelation that someone is applying for a job elsewhere can have negative effects on their current employment. The worst-case scenario is to be identified as a candidate and then not hired, because it can both undermine a sitting president's appearance of commitment and make him or her look like someone else's rejected goods. "I know it makes for good TV and news to be able to give a blow by blow of who's made it and who hasn't," Murphy says, "but at the same time, that's not something that a lot of people who are in these high-profile positions want to subject themselves to."

It is not a trivial concern. In August, while the UT search was under way, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a front-page article with the headline, "Too Much Sunshine Can Complicate Presidential Searches." It cited the difficulties of an open search at Florida State University, which attracted 26 candidates but no sitting presidents. In contrast, an unnamed school conducting a closed search drew applications from 17 sitting presidents. (The article also discussed Tennessee's travails at length, and quoted News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy making the case for transparency: "If you want public money, then be accountable to the people you're taking money from.")

Of course, as Murphy acknowledges, the quieter searches UT conducted in the past had their own problems, producing both Gilley and Shumaker. The search that led to Petersen was a step toward the greater openness of the most recent process.

Joan Heminway, a UT law professor and president of the Faculty Senate, says she was pleased with the two finalists produced by this search: DiPietro and Brian Noland, chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. (The Board of Trustees elected DiPietro by an 11-10 vote.) But, she says, "It does appear that a lot of people are scared off by a very, very public search like this." In particular, it may have limited the participation of highly qualified women and minority candidates. Despite a rhetorical emphasis throughout the process on diversity, Heminway says there was "definite disappointment" among faculty that the five finalists were all white males.

"I do think we ought to rethink the extreme openness of the search we had this time," Heminway says.

One of those five finalists agrees. Jerry Askew, senior vice president for external relations at Mercy Health Partners, says he thinks DiPietro is "an excellent choice" to run the university. But having been a candidate in the last two presidential searches, Askew says he understands why some people would be hesitant to put themselves through the process. He was fortunate in having the support of his employer, but that is less likely to be true of executives in the politically fraught world of academia.

"If I were asked to recommend a compromise," Askew says, "I would probably say we should find a way to protect the confidentiality of applicants until the finalists are chosen." In the case of the UT search, that might have meant revealing only five names rather than 71.

In any case, nobody hopes that UT will have to revisit the question any time soon. DiPietro, 59, a professor of veterinary medicine who has been at UT since 2006 and a chancellor since this past summer, will have to serve only five years to become the system's longest-running president since Joe Johnson retired in 1999.

At a celebratory news conference on Friday, DiPietro declared himself "tickled to death" to take on the challenge (a challenge that will include, he noted, teaching Tennesseans to say dee-pee-AY-tro). He offered no easy path to achieving Gov. Phil Bredesen's goal of making UT a "top-25 research university," beyond saying, "Aspirational goals are good for all campuses and universities."

Tommy Jervis, president of the Student Government Association on the Knoxville campus, says students seemed happy with the selection—or at least, the ones who were paying attention to it. "Dr. DiPietro's loved on the Ag campus, he's loved by the students," Jervis says. "He's done a tremendous amount of work."

Heminway says DiPietro's first move should be to familiarize himself as much as possible with the entire statewide system, even before he officially assumes the presidency on Jan. 1. He appears to be starting that effort this week, with visits scheduled Thursday and Friday to the UT Space Institute, the Health Science Center, and the campuses at Martin and Chattanooga.

Heminway says DiPietro can allay some of the concerns about diversity by choosing his staff and cabinet carefully. She also notes that the closeness of the vote on the Board of Trustees should give him incentive to reach out and listen to those who were drawn to the dynamism some saw in the younger Noland.

But for now, Heminway says, whatever the drawbacks of the search process, she is hopeful UT's leadership is finally back on the firm footing that has eluded it for the past decade. "I just don't see any of the embarrassments that our last three presidents have foisted on us happening with this presidency," she says.