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Why public institutions should name job finalists

By John Drescher
The (Raleigh) News & Observer

The Wake County school board has been divided on many issues during the past four years. But it was united recently on one – it decided to name finalists for its superintendent job and to have those finalists meet the public.

The board named three finalists, who toured schools and took questions from residents at a forum. A few weeks later, James Merrill, the Virginia Beach superintendent, was hired.

Identifying the finalists is an effective approach for filling high-profile public jobs. Durham used a similar approach to choose its police chief in 2007. So did Raleigh in naming its last two police chiefs. The state community college board chose its current president in 2007 after publicly identifying finalists. It’s routine in Charlotte as well.

Let’s hope this becomes standard procedure. Naming finalists enables the candidates and the public to get to know each other. It’s also an important step for the hiring agency to check out the candidate’s record. Announcing finalists helps surface information about a candidate and helps the hiring agency manage its risk. No privately conducted background check is as effective.

In North Carolina, UNC campus boards generally have not named finalists for chancellor jobs, even though doing so has been effective. When Appalachian State University was looking for a new chancellor in 2004, the search committee named six finalists who visited the Boone campus and met with students, professors and community members. The committee recommended three finalists, and the UNC system president chose Ken Peacock, former dean of the College of Business.

Peacock, a Rocky Mount native, has been a successful chancellor. Now 65, he has announced his retirement. Peacock told me this week that if asked, he would recommend that finalists to succeed him be named and visit the campus.

Of his session with the faculty in 2004, Peacock said, “You got to hear what they were looking for. Do we need to be a more research-oriented institution? Do we need to add more programs? It was very informative to me to hear the questions and see what the faculty wished for its university to be. I found it very helpful.”

Peacock said the process serves both the university community and the candidates, especially candidates from outside the university. “They need to see how they fit and how they interact with the faculty and staff,” he said.

Opponents of publicly naming finalists say it deters good candidates from applying. No doubt there are some candidates who might not apply, especially if the new job is a lateral move. But being a finalist at a top-notch organization and not getting the job doesn’t hurt a candidate whose career is on the rise.

Ann Clark, deputy superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, was a finalist for the Wake schools job but lost on a split vote. Several Wake school board members raved about her. Did it hurt her career to not get the top job in Wake? Doubtful. Her board in Charlotte knows it’s lucky to employ a potential future big-system superintendent.

The next high-profile public job in the Triangle to be filled is that of Raleigh city manager. If Mayor Nancy McFarlane and the Raleigh City Council want to manage their risk and engage the community, they will name the finalists and have them meet the people who pay the bills.

Drescher: jdrescher@newsobserver.com.
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