HIGHER ED WORKS: Why bother with a search if outcome is decided?

Posted August 6, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated August 6, 2020 8:28 a.m. EDT

UNC President Peter Hans

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following commentary was initially posted on the Higher Ed Works website here.

Why bother with a search if the outcome is predetermined?

A proposed change in the rules for chancellor searches that’s before the UNC Board of Governors would direct the System President and Board officers to develop a pool of candidates within the UNC System as prospects to become chancellors at UNC institutions.

The policy would let the President recommend as many as two candidates in a search for a chancellor at any of the System’s 17 campuses. Those candidates would have to apply and go through the interview process for the position.

But under the proposal – which the Board of Governors will vote on in September – the President’s recommended candidate(s) would have to be among the finalists the campus Board of Trustees submits to the President to make a choice:

“In any chancellor search, the president shall have the discretion to designate up to two individuals from the president’s succession planning efforts to become candidates upon their submission of complete applications. Candidates designated by the president shall participate in search committee interviews and shall be part of the slate referred by the board of trustees for the president’s consideration in accordance with Part IV of this policy.”

Boards of Trustees must submit at least two finalists for chancellor to the System President. So the proposed change means that if the President recommends two candidates and the Board of Trustees submits three finalists, two of the three would have to be the President’s candidates.

To be sure, cultivating a “bench,” as BOG Chair Randy Ramsey put it, of internal chancellor candidates is a sound practice to recognize talented leaders within the UNC System. That part of the proposed policy is laudable.

Examples include:

  • Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz of UNC-Chapel Hill, a faculty member since 1995 and former Dean and Interim Chancellor at Carolina;
  • Chancellor Harold Martin at N.C. A&T State University, who served as a Dean at A&T, Senior Vice President of the UNC System and Chancellor at Winston-Salem State University;
  • Chancellor Karrie Dixon of Elizabeth City State University, who served as a senior administrator in the UNC System Office; and
  • Chancellor Brian Cole of the UNC School of the Arts, who was a Dean and Interim Chancellor before he was named Chancellor.

But requiring the President’s candidates to be among the finalists submitted by the campus Board of Trustees goes a step too far.

The move would disenfranchise campus Boards of Trustees – again, why go to the trouble to conduct a national search if two finalists have already been chosen? – and strip trustees of ownership in who leads the campus. Trustees have already bristled at the proposal, saying it could politicize chancellor searches.

Further, it would stifle applications from external candidates if they think the search is biased toward internal candidates.

North Carolina’s public universities have been blessed with good leadership and can only benefit from the broadest possible pool of applicants.

Some – like recently retired UNC Charlotte Chancellor Phil Dubois and his predecessor Jim Woodward – came from outside the UNC System to lead its most rapidly growing campus. So did current NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson.

As Ramsey recently noted, the Board of Governors can already return a campus’s recommendations to trustees if it doesn’t like its choices – and has done so.

The President has the same prerogative. There’s no need to make his or her recommendations a self-fulfilling prophecy – the recommendation alone should send a strong signal.

Republicans once billed themselves as the party of local control – “investing authority in the level of government closest to the people.”

That would include trustees at the 17 campuses of the UNC System. So let’s have faith in those local leaders – who are primarily appointed by the Board of Governors – and not dictate their choices to them.

Developing a pool of prospects makes good sense. But mandating the choice of finalists is overkill.

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