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Search for UNC chancellor has 'fast start,' consultant says

CHAPEL HILL The search for UNC Chapel Hill’s next chancellor is in a quiet phase for the holidays, but already there has been plenty of behind-the-scenes activity.

Listening to public input has been the first order of business for a 21-member search committee.

Four public forums were held, and an online survey seeks the opinions of faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni and others by Dec. 15.

Dozens of candidates have been nominated, including the mayor of a North Carolina city, who was flattered but is not a contender, according to UNC’s search consultant, Bill Funk.

Funk, a top higher-education headhunter, has begun to recruit.

He has made overtures to 25 to 30 potential candidates, he told the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees this month.

“What we’re doing now is notifying those individuals, following up with them, nurturing, cajoling a little bit to see if we just can’t build as robust a pool as we possibly can,” Funk said.

“I think we’re off to a very fast start. The names that have come forward, and even some of the individuals who have already expressed interest, are a veritable who’s who in higher education leadership around the country.”

Searching in secret

Of course, those names are top secret, and the search committee plans to keep it that way. Funk said UNC is looking for a new leader at the same time as many other universities.

He cited Princeton, Carnegie Mellon and Penn State universities, as well as the universities of Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin.

North Carolina will have a competitive advantage over Wisconsin and Florida, Funk said, because those states require finalists to be revealed and interviewed publicly.

He called Florida’s sunshine law on public disclosure “onerous and ominous.”

The search committee members at UNC have already signed vows of confidentiality about the process that will end sometime in the spring when three candidates’ names are forwarded to UNC system President Tom Ross. Ross will make his recommendation to the UNC Board of Governors, which has the final say.

Secrecy does not serve the public well, said Hugh Stevens, a Raleigh lawyer whose firm represents The (Raleigh) News & Observer and other media organizations.

Other campuses, including Appalachian State University, have held searches in which the finalists participated in public interviews.

“My philosophy is if you’re one of the three finalists to be the chancellor of the University of North Carolina and you’re embarrassed to have your name known, then you aren’t the right person for the job in the first place,” Stevens said.

He said too often search committees at public universities skirt the open meetings law by adjourning meetings and then reconvening them at a later date, never giving notice to the media.

“The idea that they don’t give any notice of their meetings, they don’t take any vote in public, it’s all done under cloak of darkness, I just think it’s wrong,” Stevens said.

“I think the reason that our law doesn’t seem as onerous is that our search committees ignore it.”

‘Thorp in a skirt’

There has been some public input through the forums and that has been helpful, said Wade Hargrove, trustee chairman and head of the search committee.

He said many of the participants lauded Holden Thorp, who announced that he would step down next year after more than a year of athletic and academic fraud scandals. Despite the turmoil, Thorp remained popular on campus.

Some forum speakers called for UNC’s first female chancellor, which prompted at least one participant to suggest, “Basically what we’re looking for is Holden Thorp in a skirt,” Hargrove recalled.

Activity ramps up in 2013

The hard work begins sometime around the new year, he said.

“The level of activity will pick up steam considerably later in December or January when we begin to interview specific candidates and begin to narrow the field,” he said.

Reference interviews and background checks will be done for a short list of candidates. Then, about eight candidates are likely to be interviewed at airports, away from the prying eyes of people on campus.

This position is not the only hire under way. The campus has launched the search for its next provost, who is the chief academic officer, and the vice chancellor for development, who is the top fundraiser.

Provost Bruce Carney is returning to the faculty in June and chief fundraiser Matt Kupec resigned after inappropriate travel spending with his girlfriend, Tami Hansbrough, also a UNC fundraiser and mother of former Carolina basketball star Tyler Hansbrough.

Thorp said those two searches will be timed so that the next chancellor can weigh in and make a selection in the spring.

“That will accelerate the transition process to the new administration and I think will help my successor be in the best possible position to hit the ground running,” Thorp said.

Tough time to search

During any presidential search, a university wants to showcase its successes, but this search comes at a sensitive time.

Several external investigations are under way related to athletics and academic fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies department, where athletes and other students enrolled in no-show classes and did little work other than final papers.

The scandal has led to a slew of procedural changes, but the full extent of the problems are yet unclear.

It’s a safe bet that anyone interested in the chancellor’s job will be watching the outcome of the various investigations closely.

Some say a public vetting of finalists would go a long way to helping restore faith in the university.

“I think one of the things that the university at Chapel Hill is facing is a serious loss of public confidence and public approval,” Stevens said. “When you have a secret, under-the-table, closed-door process for finding your next chancellor, I don’t think that helps (at) all. In fact, I think it hurts.”

But Funk suggested there is no crisis. He said UNC still has a national reputation for quality and “a very pristine image.”

“I think there’s a recognition on the part of the leaders in higher education that the kinds of things that you have been dealing with can occur anywhere at anytime,” Funk said.

And, he assured trustees, candidates will be drawn by North Carolina’s reputation as a generous state in the way it funds higher education at a time when many public universities are facing serious financial crises.

But finding people to take on the stress-filled and sometimes unrewarding job of college president is becoming more difficult, Funk said. A majority of all sitting presidents are 61 or older, a phenomenon the Chronicle of Higher Education dubbed “the graying of the presidency.”

The tenure of college presidents is dropping, and Funk said he keeps thinking a new wave of young presidents will arrive, “but it just hasn’t happened as yet.”

Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise, Thorp said.

“I just want to point out that I achieved the graying of the presidency at age 48.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559
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