UNC search panel debates how to identify next leader

The University of North Carolina is arguably the best public higher education system in the nation, but finding a superb president to lead it will be like looking for a needle in a haystack, consultants told a UNC search committee Wednesday.

The UNC Board of Governors committee searching for a successor to UNC President Tom Ross interviewed three search consultants Wednesday and will question a fourth firm next week. A decision could come late next week on which firm gets the job of orchestrating a high-profile search for the next leader of the 17-campus system, which has 222,000 students.

In discussions that stretched for hours, board members learned about the processes used to recruit candidates and how they might go about winnowing the field and conducting discreet interviews in small groups.

Several ideas emerged repeatedly. Candidates from outside the academic world are increasingly being sought for university presidencies, consultants said. And some universities are embracing “change agents” as the higher education landscape shifts with technology, financial constraints and the demand for accountability.

Terrence MacTaggart, a senior fellow from the Association of Governing Boards, was brought in to advise the UNC committee on the fundamentals of the search.

He said people from business, government, politics and even the military could be appropriate leaders for a university system head. He pointed out that several retired military generals have made excellent presidents elsewhere in the United States.

“I would be surprised if you hired a very conventional candidate, actually,” MacTaggart said. “For these jobs, nontraditional is traditional, almost.”

But he emphasized that there is no reason to go looking for a big name, “some icon.”

“You want someone who can do the job,” MacTaggart said.

That, he admitted, will be a tall order at a time of rapid change in education. “Just getting a pretty good president ain’t good enough,” MacTaggart said. “The bar is really high. You’re not going to have anything to tell your kids and grandkids if this system kind of goes downhill and erodes because it had weak leadership.”

A time of change

Public university systems across the country are reorganizing themselves – merging campuses, accelerating online programs, and, in some cases, becoming more independent at a time of decreasing state revenue.

The consultants conceded that North Carolina is different from many public universities because it enjoys wide public loyalty and a tradition of strong financial support from the state. Low tuition “as far as practicable” is written into the state constitution.

One search consultant, Jerry Baker of Baker & Associates, was blunt in his assessment of outsiders’ view of political upheaval in the state. He said there is a perception of increasing involvement of the legislature and the board in managing the university.

“I am concerned about higher education in our state,” Baker said. “I think we have not reached our potential. I think the University of North Carolina can be and should be the best higher education system in the country.”

The UNC system board has been harshly criticized in some quarters for forcing the early retirement of Ross, who will step down in early 2016. Some viewed it as purely political act by a newly Republican board eager to please the Republican-led legislature.

People across the nation have noticed changes in education in North Carolina, Baker noted, as he described his recent discussions in other searches.

“Folks from Boston to Berkeley kept saying, ‘Jerry, what’s going on in North Carolina?’ It doesn’t feel right to people afar when they look at what we’re doing here,” Baker said. “So I want us to think about how we can get to where we should be. Higher education in North Carolina has been superb for 200 years. We’re slipping a little bit, at least in the eyes of those around the country.”

Search consultant Bill Funk said he withdrew from a search at Florida State University recently because the candidate was a predetermined political pick.

“I really wanted to do an honest search,” he said.

Funk said the key is to recruit people who aren’t looking for a job – those who are at the zenith of their careers. And, he said, the demand for good leaders far outstrips leaders coming from the university world.

“I think you’re going to see more and more nonacademics,” he said.

‘Necessary requirement’

David Powers, a board member from Winston-Salem, said neglecting to hire a “change agent” to North Carolina is “not an option.”

“It’s a necessary requirement,” Powers said.

MacTaggart said that the board members must have agreement on the broad direction of the university system – what needs changing and how that should be accomplished.

Former board Chairwoman Hannah Gage pointed out that the board hasn’t really had that conversation yet. When should that happen? she asked MacTaggart.

“Soon,” he said.

Board Chairman John Fennebresque said having a larger discussion is a good idea, and he will think about it.

“We want a change agent, but we don’t know the specifics of what we want to change,” he said. “Do I think the board ought to get together and be able to talk back and forth about what they’re looking for? Yes. Do I think there will be a precise itemization of the factors or traits of a new leader or a new job description coming out of that? Probably not.”

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Twitter: @janestancill